Space Station Astronauts Prepare for Crew Swap
Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin (left) and Oleg Kotov, Expedition 15 commander and flight engineer, respectively; along with astronaut Clay Anderson, flight engineer, give a 'thumbs-up' signal after moving the International Space Station's PMA-3 docking port on Aug. 30, 2007 during the Expedition 15 mission.
Credit: NASA

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are preparing their orbital laboratory for a crew swap that will begin with the arrival of three new spaceflyers next month.

ISS Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Oleg Kotov, both Russian cosmonauts, are eagerly awaiting the planned Oct. 12 arrival of their Expedition 16 relief crew, though their U.S. crewmate Clayton Anderson will stay aboard for the initial days of the new mission, NASA managers said Tuesday.

"It's hard to believe that it has already been 170 days in its execution," NASA's lead Expedition 15 flight director Bob Dempsey said of the mission during a briefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Yurchikhin and Kotov will hand control of the space station over to Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko, who are slated to launch toward the ISS with Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor -- Malaysia's first astronaut -- on Oct. 10 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Expedition 15 astronauts are completing a six-month mission that began in mid-April. Since then, they have staged three spacewalks and hosted two visiting NASA space shuttle crews to continue assembly of the half-built ISS. Yurchikhin and Kotov are due to return to Earth with Shukor on Oct. 21 while Anderson takes up his post as an Expedition 16 flight engineer.

Yurchihkhin and his Expedition 15 crewmates are also expected to clear a docking port for the incoming Expedition 16 astronauts on Thursday, when they will move their Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft to a berth on the aft end of the space station's Zvezda service module.

The Russian-built Progress 25 cargo ship that previously occupied the Zvezda docking port was discarded last week.

Earlier today, Russian flight controllers in Moscow were expected to order the disposable space freighter to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere after a week of propulsion system tests. Russian flight controllers are also expected to retract a pair of older solar arrays on the station's Zarya control module later this week to clear space for future ISS radiators, NASA said.

Busy ISS work ahead

Whitson, the space station's first female commander, is NASA's first astronaut to serve a second tour aboard the ISS. She last flew to the station in 2002 as an Expedition 5 flight engineer and NASA's first ISS science officer.

"Her previous experience is going to be very valuable to us as we take on this very challenging increment," said Holly Ridings, NASA's lead Expedition 16 flight director, in mission briefing. Malenchenko, who commanded the ISS in 2003 during Expedition 7, also brings vital experience to the upcoming flight, she added.

Ridings said Whitson and her Expedition 16 crewmates will have no shortages of challenges during their six-month mission.

On Oct. 23, just two days after the Shukor and the Expedition 15 crew depart the ISS, NASA plans to launch the space shuttle Discovery's STS-120 astronauts on a 14-day construction mission to the ISS. That shuttle mission will deliver a vital connecting node to the ISS, relocate an older solar array truss and ferry NASA astronaut Daniel Tani to replace Anderson as part of the Expedition 16 crew.

More tricky space station construction work and up to two more shuttle missions - each of which will ferry a replacement Expedition 16 crewmember to the ISS - are planned during the long-duration flight. The launch of unmanned Russian cargo ships and Europe's first Automated Transfer Vehicle - a robotic resupply ship dubbed Jules Verne - are also scheduled while Whitson and Malenchenko are aboard the station.

"It's a challenging sequence, but we're going to get there," Ridings said.