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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Half the International Space Station crew departed for Earth on Monday, leaving behind the visiting shuttle Endeavour and a parting gift for NASA -- a legacy photograph of the shuttle parked at the orbital outpost.
As the 30-year-old shuttle program winds down, NASA has been looking for an opportunity to capture an iconic image of one of its orbiters on the job at the space station. The United States will have devoted 37 of its 135 space shuttle flights to construction and support of the space station by the time the program ends after one last cargo run in July.
"Hopefully those pictures will show up in textbooks for years to come," said Kenneth Todd, a space station manager. "It would be great to have the space shuttle represented there with us, as well as all the other international partners."
The only way to get the shot is from aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, the vehicles used to transport station crews to and from the outpost.
NASA pitched the idea of a Soyuz photo shoot to its Russian partners earlier this year, but it was scuttled for technical reasons. However, a two-week launch delay for shuttle Endeavour to repair an electrical problem presented another opportunity: Its 12-day visit coincided with the departure of station commander Dmitry Kondratyev, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli and NASA astronaut Catherine "Cady" Coleman.
The trio climbed into one of the station's two Soyuz capsules to return to Earth on Monday, ending their six-month stay in space. They had one last job before landing.
After departing the outpost at 5:35 p.m. EDT (2135 GMT), Kondratyev flew his Soyuz spaceship out to about 200 meters (656 feet) from the station, which slowly rotated about 130 degrees while Nespoli snapped pictures and recorded video. The images will be the first of a shuttle and the station together from a remote vantage point, with a planetary view of Earth in the background.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Nespoli said as he took the photos.
NASA will have one last opportunity to get the shot, if for some reason Monday's attempt fails. The shuttle Atlantis is due to arrive at the station in July for NASA's final shuttle mission. There is no station crew rotation planned for that time, so any photo shoot would require the Soyuz to leave and then repark at the station, a more complicated operation that has yet to be approved.
Kondratyev and his crew, along with the prized pictures, are scheduled to land at 10:26 p.m. EDT (0226 GMT on Tuesday) in Kazakhstan. NASA hopes to copy and distribute the digital images within a day or two.
The Endeavour crew, which has completed two of four spacewalks for station maintenance, enjoyed off-duty time Monday. The primary goal of the mission, which began on May 16, was to deliver the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector and spare parts for the station.
Three new station crewmembers -- cosmonaut Sergi Volkov, NASA astronaut Michael Fossum and Japan's Satoshi Furukawa -- are scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on June 7.
Endeavour and its crew -- commander Mark Kelly, pilot Greg Johnson, spacewalkers Andrew Feustel, Michael Fincke and Greg Chamitoff, and Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori -- are due back at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1.
Editing by Jane Sutton and Cynthia Osterman