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Endeavor Crew Says 'Bye To Space Station

Seven astronauts piled into space shuttle Endeavour for the return trip to Earth after eating Thanksgiving dinner, leaving their counterparts at the international space station like relatives parting ways from a holiday visit.

After Endeavour undocks early Friday, it was to circle the international space station so shuttle astronauts can photograph the outpost orbiting 220 miles above Earth. Endeavour then will fly 46 miles from the station for a final inspection to make sure the shuttle's heat shield is damage-free before re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

"I'm looking forward to the views," said pilot Eric Boe, who will be at the shuttle's controls.

The shuttle's crew was set to return to Florida on Sunday after completing a 16-day mission. It delivered a huge crate of cargo to the space station, which included a new bathroom, kitchenette, two bedrooms, exercise equipment, and a system that purifies urine, sweat and condensation into drinking water. All is needed to double the space station's population to six next year.

Endeavour astronauts also performed four spacewalks to clean and lubricate a jammed joint that rotates solar wings toward the sun to generate power.

"You've totally fixed us up on the inside and on the outside," station commander Mike Fincke told Endeavour's crew before the hatches between the station and shuttle shut Thursday evening. "You guys were such perfect guests. You left the place cleaner than you found it."

The shuttle will bring back Gregory Chamitoff, who lived for six months at the space station. Astronaut Sandra Magnus took his place on the three-person crew after arriving Nov. 16 aboard Endeavour. The station's other crew members are Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov.

"As I leave it today, I feel both happy and sad," Chamitoff said Thursday evening. "Sad to leave my crew. ... And of course I'm really happy because I'm really looking forward to seeing my family."

Before the hatches closed and the astronauts exchanged farewell hugs, the two crews ate a Thanksgiving meal together of smoked turkey, candied yams, green beans and cornbread dressing.

Flight controllers in Mission Control also got into the Thanksgiving spirit. They ate Thanksgiving dinners at their consoles and displayed an animated turkey on the center's gigantic electronic map, which tracks the space station's orbit around the world.

In the afternoon, flight controllers lined up in Mission Control, each holding a sign with a letter spelling "Happy Thanksgiving" for the space shuttle crew, as the song "Grease" played over loudspeakers as a tribute to the grease-gun-carrying spacewalkers.

Endeavour astronaut Donald Pettit, who lived for five months at a smaller version of the space station six years ago, said the outpost has become grander with each new addition.

"It's like coming back to visit your parents and finding out they put a new addition onto the house," Pettit said.

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