Air lock closes on 30-year shuttle era

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The astronauts on Nasa's final shuttle voyage floated out of the International Space Station for the last time yesterday, leaving behind a historic US flag and a commemorative shuttle model to mark the end of a 30-year era.

The Atlantis shuttle was set to undock from the orbiting lab this morning – providing the last glimpses of a space shuttle in flight before the fleet is retired.

As the hatches swung shut behind the four crew members, it closed "a chapter in the history of our nation", the space station astronaut Ronald Garan said in yesterday's emotional farewell.

Before the shuttle crew departed, he attached to the door of the space station a small flag, which rocketed into orbit on the first shuttle flight in 1981.

The flag will remain on the air lock until the first commercial missions reach the space station, possible as early as 2015.

Atlantis has been docked at the space station for more than a week, unloading a year's worth of supplies and packing up waste and old equipment for the trip home.

It is due to land at Florida's Kennedy Space Centre just before sunrise on Thursday.