The spacecraft separated some 240 miles above Russia, a few minutes late because of minor computer trouble. Afterward, pilot Scott Altman flew Atlantis around the station twice while his crewmates took pictures and videotape of the shining outpost.
"Watching the sunrise and sunset, and the way it illuminated the solar arrays on the service module was just phenomenal. It sparkled like a jewel out there against the blue background of the oceans. A very, very beautiful sight for us,'' Altman said.
The craft flew together for eight days, during which Atlantis' seven-man crew completed all of its assigned tasks and even some planned for later missions.
"This crew has certainly laid out the red carpet for the first crew to come aboard the international space station,'' space station deputy manager Robert Cabana said. "I think they accomplished everything we asked them to do, everything we wished they could do, and I think about everything we dreamed that they could do.''
During five days inside, the shuttle astronauts outfitted the station with five new batteries, a toilet, an oxygen generator and a treadmill in the new Russian-built service module Zvezda. During a spacewalk a week ago, they hooked up power, data and TV cables. They also stocked the cabinets with more than 6,000 pounds of food, clothes, toiletries, ear plugs, office supplies, trash bags, vacuum cleaners and other gear.
All of that will be waiting when the first station crew arrives for a four-month stay, scheduled to begin Nov. 1. Shuttle Cmdr. Terrence Wilcutt said astronaut Bill Shepherd, who will lead a crew of two cosmonauts, won't have any trouble making his home inside Zvezda.
"It seemed like a new house, which is exactly what it was. It's ready to go. We tidied it up, left him a couple of notes and I think it's ready for him to move into,'' Wilcutt said.
Atlantis' crew even warmed up the beds for Shepherd and company: Each of Atlantis' crew tried Zvezda's sleeping accommodations for a night, Wilcutt said.
All that remains for Atlantis' crew is a bit of well-earned relaxation time and landing preparations. Tropical Storm Gordon was downgraded to a depression Monday and is not expected in interfere with a scheduled Wednesday return to the Kennedy Space Center.
"The forecast actually says that behind the storm, it should be pretty favorable weather conditions, so we're looking forward to those,'' mission operations representative Jeff Bantle said.
The storm was expected to stay well north of Cape Canaveral, where the space shuttle Discovery is on its launch pad awaiting an Oct. 5 departure for a space station construction mission.
NASA opted to keep Discovery on its pad because of the storm's path, and was not too concerned that the storm would knock launch preparations off schedule.
"We did lose a little time, but we built in contingency days,'' Bantle said.