Set against a background of clouds, the International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-129 crew member on Atlantis soon after the station and shuttle undocked on Nov. 25, 2009.
The International Space Station, which was crowded last week with 12 astronauts onboard, is set to go down to a crew of two Tuesday.
Seven astronauts departed the station Nov. 25 on the space shuttle Atlantis, and now three more station residents are set to undock from the orbital outpost Monday at 10:56 p.m. EST (0356 GMT Tuesday) to land their Russian Soyuz spacecraft at 2:16 a.m. EST (0716 GMT) Tuesday in Kazakhstan.
The barebones remaining crew of two ? NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev ? will be left to handle the space laboratory themselves for about three weeks.
"Jeff once told me that this will be the best time," Suraev said during an in-flight news conference last week. "Right now we have so many people onboard, so I haven?t had the chance to be onboard with just two crewmembers. What we're planning to do is just the regular work, our regular activities."
The two spaceflyers will each have more daily maintenance jobs than they do when the normal crew of six long-term residents is at the station. Though they may have to cut down on the amount of science research they can accomplish, Williams and Suraev should be able to handle the workload, NASA said.
"We won't overload the crew with a lot of tasks," said Dan Hartman, manager of space station integration and operations. "We feel very comfortable going into it."
In fact, Williams is an old hand at serving on small crews: He was one of two astronauts working on the space station during Expedition 13 in 2003, when shuttle flights were put on hold following the tragic Columbia accident.
"I spent three months as part of a crew of two with Pavel [Vinogradov], and we had a great time," Williams told SPACE.com. "The loneliness was not an issue. There's so much contact with the ground? that it's not an issue."
Williams was recently promoted to commander of the space station's Expedition 22 mission after the outgoing commander, Belgian astronaut Frank DeWinne, relinquished control during a change-of-command ceremony Nov. 24.
"You've set the bar very high for me but also for those that follow us," Williams told DeWinne, the first station commander to represent the European Space Agency.
DeWinne is set to end his six-month space voyage and return to Earth Tuesday along with Expedition 21 flight engineers Bob Thirsk of Canada and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko. All three have spent 186 days on the station, overseeing the addition of a new science porch on the station, the arrival of the first Japanese unmanned cargo ship, and three visiting shuttle flights.
Williams and Suraev are due to be joined by three more crewmembers ? Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and NASA astronaut Timothy Creamer ? arriving on a Soyuz spacecraft Dec. 23.
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