Space Station Astronauts to Land Tonight
The Expedition 23 crew of the International Space Station poses for a group portrait in April 2010. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander, is at center. Also pictured clockwise (from bottom center) are Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov, NASA astronauts Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Timothy "T.J." Creamer, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, all flight engineers.
Credit: NASA

This story was updated at 8:19 p.m. EDT.

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station late Tuesday and is headed back to Earth with three veteran spaceflyers eager to return home after nearly six months in orbit.

The Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft undocked at 8:04 p.m. EDT (0004 Wednesday GMT) while flying 215 miles above Mongolia to begin its hours-long descent with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander of the station's Expedition 23 mission, at the controls.

"Bye-bye station!" Kotov said as the Soyuz carrying him and two crewmates backed away, revealing the huge space station ahead. "Beautiful view."

Kotov said the undocking went extremely smoothly. He is returning to Earth with American astronaut Timothy "T.J." Creamer of NASA and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The three men made up half of the space station's full six-person crew and had lived aboard the orbiting laboratory since mid-December.

"Oh! I forgot something. Can we go back?" Creamer joked as the Soyuz moved ever-farther away from the station. His crewmates laughed.

The Soyuz TMA-17 is headed for a 11:24 p.m. EDT (0324 GMT) landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, where it will be early morning Wednesday local time. [Photos: A snowy Soyuz landing.]

During their time on the station, Kotov and his crewmates hosted three visiting NASA space shuttle missions. Those flights delivered a new NASA room, seven-window observation deck, and vital spare parts and supplies.

The most recent shuttle visit by NASA's Atlantis orbiter in May delivered a new $200 million Russian research module called Rassvet (which means "Dawn" in Russian).

On Monday, Kotov officially turned control of the space station over to its new Expedition 24 commander Alexander Skvortsov.

"It's time to give up commanding of the station," Kotov said during a change of command ceremony. "It was really a successful mission for us."

Last week, Creamer said that after more than five months on the space station, he's eagerly looking forward to returning to Earth and seeing his friends and family again. 

And while Creamer admitted that he will miss the camaraderie of his crew and the view of Earth from space, there are some creature comforts that cannot be recreated in weightlessness.

"Specifically, I'd really like to drink something not from a straw and have food stay on the plate for a change," he said.

With Kotov and his crewmates returning to Earth, Skvortsov and his crew will get started the station's Expedition 24 mission.

Skvortsov arrived at the space station in early April with fellow Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson of NASA. The spaceflyers initially joined the Expedition 23 crew and will now remain behind to await the arrival of three new crewmembers slated to launch from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on June 15.

That Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft will launch with veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and American astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker on a new six-month mission that will also span several station expedition crews.

SPACE.com is providing complete landing coverage for Kotov and his Expedition 23 crew. Click here for mission updates and a link to NASA's undocking and landing webcast.