SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Whirling through space at nearly five miles a second, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts yesterday took apart the world's largest spacecraft easily and flawlessly as they had put it together five days ago, ending the first East-West linkup in two decades and clearing the way for future cooperative ventures.
The elaborate disassembly began early yesterday as a Russian Soyuz spaceship carrying two Russian cosmonauts undocked from the sprawling space complex, made up of the 112-foot-long Russian space station Mir and 122-foot-long U.S. space shuttle Atlantis.
Moving with the delicacy of a dancer, the relatively tiny Soyuz pulled back about 200 feet to photograph the giant East-West structure against the backdrop of outer space.
Then the Atlantis joined the ballet. With eight people on board, six American astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts, the winged American spaceship undocked and moved back 500 feet to photograph the uninhabited space station and the small Russian spaceship.
"This is quite a scene," Capt. Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson of the Navy, the 48-year-old commander of the Atlantis, told ground controllers in Houston as he maneuvered his craft as part of a trio of spacecraft flying in formation some 245 miles above Earth.
The Soyuz then redocked with the space station.
In the final act, the Atlantis pirouetted around the Mir and the docked Soyuz craft to photograph and examine them in preparation for a future rendezvous.
The shuttle astronauts, through a radio link, then said goodbye to their two Russian colleagues, speaking in Russian, after five days of joint operations, ending history's most intricate space rendezvous and blasting off through space for a return to Earth on Friday.
Although it looked easy, the ballet was one of the most elaborate and venturesome acts in space history. Nothing so complex involving a trio of vehicles had ever before been attempted in orbit.
The Russians, eager to document the historic linkup, had come up with the idea of the Soyuz pulling out first. The spaceship normally transports cosmonauts to and from Earth.
But in the end, the ballet was as smooth as could be.
Over the next two years, American space shuttles and the Mir are to dock seven times in preparation for building and using a 460-ton international space station larger than a football field.
The orbital base is to house Americans, Russians, Japanese, Europeans and Canadians who will do scientific experiments, observe the heavens and Earth, and study their responses to weightlessness in the hope of learning how humans might survive trips to Mars and beyond.
The Atlantis is to return to the Mir station in October for the second of the East-West linkups.
While hooked together for the past five days, Atlantis and Mir formed a 225-ton structure bigger and brighter than any other in the 38 years since the space age began. The joined spacecraft held a record 10 people -- six Americans, two of them women, and four Russians.
The five-day linkup featured a crew swap for the Mir station and a bevy of biomedical projects to explore the effects of weightlessness.
Mir was recently expanded by the addition of a large new module known as Spektr, filled with 1,600 pounds of American equipment for biomedical research.
The undocking of the current mission began at 5:55 a.m., Central Daylight Time, as the Soyuz pulled away. It was manned by two Russian cosmonauts, Anatoly Y. Solovyev, 47, and Nikolai M. Budarin, 42, who rode into space last week aboard the American shuttle.
The Atlantis pulled back 15 minutes later. After its docking hooks and latches let go, giant springs on the space shuttle pushed Mir and Atlantis apart before the shuttle fired its steering jets to move farther away.
On board were the five American astronauts who flew up to Mir last week, as well as the three former crew members of Mir: Lt. Col. Vladimir N. Dezhurov, 32; Gennady M. Strekalov, 54; and Dr. Norman E. Thagard, 51, an American who entered the station with his two Russian colleagues in March and has so far spent 112 days in space, a record for an American astronaut.
The only glitch yesterday was a computer failure aboard Mir while the Soyuz was undocked and the space station was uninhabited. That left it unable to turn on its lights and inhibited some of the photography.
At 7:35 a.m., as the space station floated in the distance like a toy model, the Atlantis fired its main maneuvering jets to restart its independent voyage through space -- doing so, as fate would have it, at the dawn of Independence Day.