Space Station Crew Heads Home

International Space Station Alpha seen from Space Shuttle Discovery
A wingless space capsule carrying an American, a Russian and a Spaniard undocked from the international space station and began streaking toward Earth, Russian Mission Control said Tuesday.

The 3.5-hour trip was to end in the wide-open steppes of Kazakhstan, only the second time a U.S. astronaut has come home in a Russian craft and landed on foreign soil.

The three on Tuesday's homeward-bound trip were American Ed Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, who flew to the space station nearly six months ago in the same Soyuz, and Spaniard Pedro Duque, who arrived at the station eight days ago on a different capsule.

Since the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia in February put NASA manned space flights on hold, the Russian Soyuz capsules have been the linchpin of the space station program.

Officials at Mission Control outside Moscow and others waiting in Kazakhstan for the landing were hoping the Soyuz's image would be burnished even more by avoiding the wild ride of the last Soyuz descent in May, which ended with the American and Russian crew going some 250 miles off-course because of a computer error.

Russian aerospace engineers said there was only a slim chance that this crew would suffer from the same computer malfunction that sent the station's previous inhabitants on such a steep trajectory home that their tongues rolled back in their mouths. The May landing was so far off-target that more than two gut-wrenching hours passed before rescuers knew the men were safe.

"There is very little probability of another ballistic landing," said Gen. Vladimir Popov, who heads the team responsible for Russia's space search and rescue operations. "But we must be prepared for any variant, and we are."

Kazakhstan, where the Russian manned space program also has its launch pad, agreed to a Russian request to close off a wider swathe of airspace than previously, said Mikhail Zotov, the search and rescue spokesman. Rescue crews were to fly from three locations instead of one to cover all the possible landing spots, he said.

Thirteen helicopters, four planes and numerous off-terrain vehicles were to take part in the operation. The search teams will include flight surgeons from NASA and the European Space Agency.

Additionally, this Soyuz is equipped with satellite phones and a global positioning satellite system — courtesy of NASA — so if the crew does land off-course and communications systems are damaged as happened in May, they'll still be able to determine and phone in their location.

The May landing rattled Russian space officials and NASA, which had sent their top administrators to Mission Control outside of Moscow to monitor the maiden return of the new model Soyuz with its first-ever U.S. and Russian crew. It came just three months after Columbia broke apart during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.

Russian aerospace engineers made minor adjustments to the Soyuz that blasted off Oct. 18, but the Soyuz coming home Tuesday was already docked in space so no changes were made.

"This Soyuz is still technically susceptible to the same type of problem but the Russians believe they understand it well enough and they've trained the crew ... so they can possibly do something manually to override the computer," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital.

About three hours before departure, Lu, Malenchenko and Duque bid farewell to the station's new crew, American Michael Foale and Russian Alexander Kaleri.

Malenchenko returns to Earth a married man, having wedded Texas resident Ekaterina Dmitriev by proxy while in space. The new bride will be waiting at a military air base near Star City outside Moscow, where the cosmonauts will be flown later Tuesday.

Also waiting will be NASA scientists, eager for water samples and, if there is room, a canister of air from the space station. Monitoring equipment onboard has broken down, leading some NASA officials to reportedly express concerns about keeping crews up there. NASA, along with astronaut Foale, have dismissed the fears, saying there are no indications of a health risk.