CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Oct. 16 (UPI) -- In a tearful farewell, the space shuttle Atlantis astronauts said good-bye to the crew of the International Space Station Wednesday, closed their spaceship's hatch and sailed away from the orbital outpost to begin a two-day journey back to Earth.
"I didn't know it would be so hard," flight engineer Sandra Magnus said to her shuttle crewmates after a last tight hug with a tearful Peggy Whitson, the sole NASA astronaut aboard the space station. Whitson and her two Russian crewmates have about another month in their planned five-and-a-half-month-long mission.
The emotional parting capped a week-long joint mission to install a new solar array truss assembly on the station and transfer cargo between the shuttle and station.
"You take care now," astronaut Piers Sellers told station commander Valery Korzun.
"Be safe. We'll see you back on Earth," Korzun replied.
Before lowering the station's hatch, Atlantis commander Jeffrey Ashby and Korzun attached reflective targets to the outside of the station's docking port to help guide shuttle Endeavour commander James Wetherbee to an accurate berthing when he arrives at the outpost with another truss assembly next month.
Korzun then sealed off the station at 7:13 a.m. ET, followed two minutes later by the lowering of the shuttle's hatch door. The Atlantis crew spent the next two hours preparing their ship for departure.
Shuttle pilot Pamela Melroy sent commands for springs in the docking mechanism to rebound, gently pushing Atlantis away from the station. She then fired steering jets to begin a slow semi-circle around the outpost while her crewmates took pictures and shot video of the station and its new protruding beam.
As the shuttle pulled out of its docking port, Whitson followed a naval tradition set by the station's first crew and rang the ship's bell.
"Atlantis departing," Whitson radioed to ground controllers.
"We want to stay! We want to stay!" shuttle crewmembers replied light-heartedly.
In addition to the new 45-foot long truss, which will serve as a mast and power relay for new solar arrays, the shuttle crew delivered two tons of equipment, supplies and science gear to the station and 1,300 pounds of fresh water.
They are returning to Earth about 1,800 pounds of packaging materials, unneeded equipment and trash from the station.
"Everything so far has met all of our expectations and in most cases, has exceeded those expectations," said flight director Phil Engelauf.
The shuttle is due back at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 11:45 a.m., ET, on Friday.