Four long-duration space station astronauts bid their lab crewmates farewell and undocked from the International Space Station early Thursday, setting off for a scheduled pre-dawn splashdown off the coast of Florida on Friday morning to close out a 176-day mission.
commander Raja Chari, pilot Thomas Marshburn, submariner-turned-astronaut Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer strapped into their ferry ship — the Crew Dragon Endurance — and backed away from the outpost at 1:05 a.m. EDT Thursday.
"Station, (this is) Endurance," Chari radioed as the ferry ship slowly separated from the ISS. "Thanks for the warm send-off. Good luck to Expedition 67, it was great being up there with you guys. Can't wait to see the awesome work you guys continue to do."
"Endurance, we appreciate the kind words," Crew-4 commander Kjell Lindgren replied from the station. "We had a great time handing over with you all and look forward to seeing your smiling faces on the ground."
Because of the station's position in its orbit relative to the Gulf of Mexico landing zone, the astronauts will have to spend nearly a full day cooped up inside the SpaceX capsule before they'll be in the right place, at the right time, to drop out of orbit on a trajectory to splashdown Friday at 12:43 a.m.
SpaceX recovery crews will be standing by to haul the capsule aboard a company ship and help the returning astronauts get out for initial medical checks as they begin re-adapting to gravity after nearly six months in weightlessness. At splashdown, the crew will have completed 2,832 orbits covering 75 million miles.
Monitoring the descent from the space station will beOleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov, along with commander Lindgren, pilot Robert Hines, geologist-astronaut Jessica Watkins and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.
"It's been an interesting day for us, we've been flying around the station, collecting our last-minute photos or last minute items, and getting ready to come home," Marshburn said during a brief farewell ceremony Thursday. "So a bit of a bittersweet day for all of us."
All four crew members thanked flight controllers, scientists and support personnel in the United States, Japan, Europe and Russia for providing around-the-clock assistance since their launch from the Kennedy Space Center on November 10.
Said Barron: "It's just been the honor of a lifetime to contribute to the legacy of this incredible vessel that's been up here for more than 20 years. And I think for all of us, it's really hard to leave (but) we're really looking forward to getting back to our families and our amazing support network on the ground."
Marshburn, commander of Expedition 67, then turned the outpost over to Artemyev, saying "the lasting legacy of the space station is very likely to be international cooperation and a place of peace."
As one might expect, there was no mention ofand no signs of the international tension that now exists between Russia and its space station partners.
"So Oleg, you're a very strong and experienced cosmonaut," Marshburn said. "I know I will be leaving the space station in good hands with you."
Artemyev, speaking in heavily accented English, thanked Marshburn and his crewmates for their friendship, accepting a symbolic "key" to the station.
"It was an unbelievable time together," he said. "Tom, Kayla, Raja and Matthias... now brothers, sister. More important thing for us, for me, for Sergey, for Denis, is our family, our children, peace between our countries, our friendship. Thank you for friendship."
Artemyev, Matveev and Korsakov arrived at the space station aboard the Soyuz MS-21/67s spacecraft on March 18. Lindgren and the Crew-4 astronauts arrived April 27 and have spent the last several days learning the ins and outs of station operations from their Crew-3 colleagues.
Shortly after undocking, the Crew-3 Dragon moved away for the space station with a series of thruster firings, culminating in a planned departure "phasing burn" just after 4 a.m. Thursday. After spending a final "night" in space, the crew will get up and rig their ship for re-entry.
Jettisoning the Crew Dragon's no-longer-needed lower trunk section, the spacecraft will fire its braking thrusters for nearly eight minutes starting at 11:53 p.m. Thursday, slowing the ship just enough to drop the far side of its orbit into the atmosphere on a trajectory toward the Gulf of Mexico.
A half hour later, the capsule will plunge back into the discernible atmosphere and eight minutes after that, the spacecraft's four main parachutes will deploy, lowering the Crew Dragon to a gentle splashdown at 12:43 a.m. Assuming an on-time landing, mission duration will be 176 days two hours and 40 minutes.
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