CAPE CANAVERAL - Two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut left the International Space Station on Wednesday and headed back to Earth after nearly six months in orbit.
Former station commander Steve Swanson and cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev strapped themselves inside the Russian Soyuz capsule that carried them to the station in March and pulled away from the outpost at 7:01 p.m. EDT/2301 GMT as the station soared about 260 miles (418 km) over eastern Mongolia. "We accomplished a lot. We've had a lot of fun," Swanson said during a change-of-command ceremony on Tuesday that was broadcast on NASA Television.
In addition to a pair of Russian spacewalks, the crew tackled a record number of science experiments, upgraded the station's prototype humanoid robot and repaired broken equipment. "We did a lot of maintenance, which is good and bad,"Swanson said. "I love doing maintenance, but it means things broke." New station commander Max Suraev remains aboard the orbital outpost along with NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and the European Space Agency's Alexander Gerst.
Returning crewmates Swanson, Skvortsov and Artemyev are due to touch down southeast of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan at 10:23 p.m. EDT/0223 GMT. "From what I've been told it's definitely the big ride at Disney World," Swanson, a two-time shuttle astronaut making his first landing in a Soyuz, said during an inflight interview. During the descent through the atmosphere, the crew will experience forces equivalent to four times the pull of Earth's gravity. They also will spin as the capsule's parachutes unfurl.
Three replacement crewmembers, including the first Russian woman to serve on the station, are due to launch on Sept. 25."Getting three new faces up here will be lots of fun," Wiseman said an inflight interview.
The newcomers are NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore and cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova. Serova will become only the fourth Russian woman to fly in space and the first to serve on the International Space Station, a $100 billion research complex owned by 15 nations.
The last Russian woman to fly in space was Yelena Kondakova, who was part of a NASA space shuttle crew in May 1997.