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Shuttle Prepares for Friday Morning Landing

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A day after departing the International Space Station, seven Atlantis astronauts are busy this Thanksgiving making sure shuttle systems are ready for Friday's planned homecoming.

The crew on Wednesday inspected Atlantis' heat shields for a second time and should learn Thursday whether they are cleared for re-entry through Earth's atmosphere.

Early weather forecasts look promising for a 9:44 a.m. EST landing at Kennedy Space Center.

"There's a pretty good chance that we'll come home on Friday," said Mike Sarafin, lead shuttle flight director during the 11-day mission.

The journey home began when springs gently shoved Atlantis from its station docking port early Wednesday to end a weeklong visit.

Station commander Jeff Williams rang a ship's bell as pilot Barry Wilmore eased Atlantis away.

"Bon voyage," Williams radioed to shuttle commander Charlie Hobaugh.

The station crew also exchanged best wishes with Nicole Stott, a former Kennedy Space Center engineer riding home on Atlantis after an 87-day stay on the orbiting science complex.

"We'll miss you, but we're happy for you that you're now returning to your family," Williams said.

Wilmore then steered Atlantis in a 360-degree loop around the station from about 600 feet away, allowing crews on each spacecraft to take photos of the other.

The maneuver brought the 750,000-pound station into full view, including two platforms of spare parts that Atlantis delivered and helped install outside.

"Watching in awe as we fly around and away from my home for the last 3 months," Stott said in a Twitter post. "What a spectacular spacecraft!"

Atlantis then fired thrusters to distance itself from the outpost.

It's the second straight year a shuttle crew will spend Thanksgiving in orbit, and the seventh time since 1985.

"As we orbit the Earth every 90 minutes, we would like to wish you a very happy Thanksgiving," Hobaugh said in a Thanksgiving Day message for the nation recorded on the shuttle. His crew piped in: "Happy Thanksgiving!"

Menus were set when the Atlantis crew expected to return home before the holiday, before their launch date changed, so they didn't plan a turkey meal.

Instead, "Meal C" on Flight Day 11 includes items such as sweet and sour pork and chicken fajitas.

Hobaugh said last week he didn't mind waiting a few days for slightly more traditional fare.

"I guarantee you we'll be having a fried turkey when I get home," he said.

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