18 Jul 2011

Astronauts pack up for last shuttle ride home

1:58 pm on 18 July 2011

The shuttle Atlantis astronauts have finished packing about two tonnes of old equipment and trash from the International Space Station into a cargo hauler for the last shuttle ride back to Earth.

The 13-day mission, the last for NASA's 30-year-old space shuttle program, is due to end with a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday.

The Italian-built storage pod will be loaded into Atlantis' payload bay early on Monday in advance of the shuttle's departure from the station early on Tuesday.

Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson and his three crewmates delivered about five tonnes of food, clothing, equipment and other supplies for the outpost.

The $US100 billion project of 16 countries was finished earlier this year after more than a decade of construction 220 kilometres above Earth.

With help from the six-member station crew, the astronauts also packed up old equipment, foam packaging and other items no longer needed on the station.

The supplies aboard Atlantis are intended to tide over the station until NASA's newly hired cargo delivery firms begin flying next year.

NASA, meanwhile, wants to ramp up development of a new capsule-style spacecraft and heavy-lift booster that can ferry people into deep space, beyond the station's orbit where the shuttles cannot fly.

Flights to take crews to the station will be handled exclusively by Russia until US firms develop spaceships capable of orbital spaceflight.