Three veteran station fliers floated into their Soyuz ferry craft Sunday and prepared for a fiery pre-dawn ride back to Earth to close out a 127-day stay in space.
Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko, outgoing Expedition 33 commander Sunita Williams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide bid a final farewell to the station's three remaining crew members - Expedition 34 commander Kevin Ford, Oleg Novitskiy and Yvgeny Tarelkin - and closed the hatch of their TMA-05M spacecraft at 2:15 p.m. EST.
If all goes well, the Soyuz will undock from the Rassvet module at 5:26 p.m., setting the stage for a four-minute 43-second deorbit rocket firing at 7:59 p.m. that will put the craft on a trajectory to landing in Kazakhstan around 8:53 p.m. (7:53 a.m. Monday local time) near the town of Arkalyk.
Touchdown was expected about a hour before sunrise, through a deck of low clouds, with up to 3 inches of snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens.
Russian recovery forces and flight surgeons were stationed nearby to help the returning crew members out of the cramped descent module as they begin their readjustment to gravity after nearly four-and-a-half months in the weightlessness of space.
The trio blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 15. At touchdown, Malenchenko will have logged just over 641 days aloft over five flights. Hoshide's mark will stand at 141 days in space during this flight and a previous shuttle mission.
Sunita Williams will move up to 322 days during two flights. She now ranks second on the list of most experienced U.S. female astronauts.
Following initial medical checks, the Soyuz crew was to be flown by helicopter to Kostonay, Kazakhstan. From there, Malenchenko planned to head back to Star City near Moscow while Williams and Hoshide were expected to board a NASA jet for the long flight back to Houston.
During a brief change of command ceremony Saturday, Williams, a former Navy helicopter pilot, formally turned turned over responsibility for the lab complex to Ford and his crewmates, who arrived at the outpost Oct. 25.
"I think we've left the ship in good shape and I'm honored to hand it over to Kevin, although he's an Air Force guy and we have to make him a little more Navy because it is a ship," she said, speaking to Ford and a NASA television audience. "So I have a little present for him. This is a Navy pennant that flies over Navy ships when the commander is on board. So this is for you."
Ford thanked Williams and her crewmates for sharing their experience and helping the new crew members get up to speed on the intricacies of station operation.
"Between Oleg, Yvgeny and I, we have all together, if you combine all of our space time, we have about three months total time in space so far," Ford said. "And if you combine the time of Suni and Aki and Yuri, they have three years of total time living in space. So they really had a lot to offer us, we learned a tremendous amount from them and they were really, really good about sharing it.
"The space station is in remarkably good condition, it's ready for full up utilization. The exercise equipment is fantastic, the facilities are fantastic, everything is in order," Ford said. "We're ready for a great expedition. We'll be here holding down the fort for maybe four or so weeks until the rest of the crew gets here and we're looking forward to doing a lot of science."
Ford, Novitskiy and Tarelkin will have the space station to themselves until Dec. 21 when the Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft docks, bringing veteran cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko and shuttle veterans Thomas Marshburn and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to the outpost.