IT WAS one small step for NASA yesterday as the last US space shuttle departed the International Space Station, ending a 12-year programme.
The shuttle has been pivotal to the building and servicing of the orbital outpost.
Shuttle Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson and pilot Doug Hurley gently pulsed their spaceship's steering jets to pull away from the station as they sailed about 400km over the Pacific Ocean.
"Thanks so much for hosting us," Mr Ferguson radioed to the station crew. "We'll miss you guys," replied station flight engineer Ron Garan. "See you back on Earth."
Flight controllers at NASA's Mission Control Centre sat in reverent silence as they watched the last shuttle pulling away from the station, a $100bn (€70.76bn) project of 16 countries that has been assembled and serviced during 37 of NASA's 135 shuttle missions.
During their nine-day visit to the station, Mr Ferguson and his crew delivered more than five tonnes of food, clothing, equipment and science experiments, a stockpile intended to bridge a potential year-long gap in US cargo runs to the station.
Atlantis' return to Earth, scheduled for tomorrow, will conclude the 30-year-old US space shuttle programme, with no replacement US spaceships ready to fly. NASA has hired two private firms to resupply the station from next year. Russia, Europe and Japan also fly freighters. Astronauts will fly aboard Russian Soyuz capsules at a cost of more than $50m (€35.38m) per person, until and unless US companies are able to offer similar transportation services to the station.