CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - As the miles melted between Atlantis and the International Space Station, the emotions grew - in orbit and on the ground.
At Mission Control on Sunday, lead flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho declared "this is it" as he gave the OK for the final docking in space shuttle history. Flashbacks to the shuttle's very first space station docking - with Russia's Mir in 1995 - flooded his mind as viewed the shuttle on the screens. He was a NASA trainee back then.
About 240 miles above the Pacific, the station's naval bell chimed a salute - one of many landmarks, or rather spacemarks, of this final two-week shuttle mission that are being savored one by one.
"Atlantis arriving," called out space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. "Welcome to the International Space Station for the last time."
"And it's great to be here," replied shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson.
Cries of joy and laughter filled the connected vessels once the hatches swung open and the two crews - 10 space fliers altogether representing three countries - exchanged hugs, handshakes and kisses on the cheek. Cameras floated everywhere, recording every moment of the last-of-its-kind festivities.
Atlantis, carrying a year's worth of supplies, is being retired after this flight, the last of the 30-year shuttle program.
"I won't say that I got close to welling up in the eyes, but I will say that it was a powerful moment for me," Alibaruho later told reporters. He tried to keep his feelings discreet so as not to distract his team of flight controllers, but said, "I know they were all feeling very similar emotions, thinking about where we've come from, how much we've accomplished ... what's coming next."
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