ISS Astronauts, Space Tourist to Land Early Saturday

ISS Astronauts, Space Tourist to Land Early Saturday
The Expedition 14 and Expedtioon 15 crews aboard the International Space Station share warm embraces during a traditional change of command ceremony aboard the outpost on April 17, 2007. From left to right: Expedition 14 flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin, Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, Expedition 15 flight engineers Sunita Williams and Oleg Kotov (partially obscured).
(Image: © NASA TV.)

Twoprofessional astronauts and an American billionaire are preparing to leave theInternational Space Station (ISS) and make a weekend return to their homeplanet.

U.S.entrepreneur Charles Simonyi - the world's fifth space tourist to the ISS -will join the station's outgoing Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegriaand flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft fora planned 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT) landing Saturday northeast of the city ofArkalyk in Kazakhstan.

The threespaceflyers are returning to Earth one day later than scheduled, and at analternate site, after heavy rainfall flooded their primary landing zone.

"I think we'veexecuted the mission plan and then some," Lopez-Alegria said as control of theISS shifted over to its new Expedition 15 crew this week.

Lopez-Alegriaand Tyurin are concluding a seven-month mission and relinquished command ofthe station to Expedition15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineers Oleg Kotov andSunita Williams, who has lived aboard the ISS since December and is staying onfor part of the next six-month mission.

"This is reallyone of the greatest pleasures for a human," Yurchikhin said as he took commandof the ISS. "I am sure we're ready to continue the full tradition of station."

Mission'send nears

DuringExpedition 14, the astronauts staged a record five spacewalks for an ISS crew, introduced thesport of golf to low-Earth orbit and welcomed a visiting space shuttleDiscovery in December for an intense station assembly mission. When the threespaceflyers land Saturday, they will set yet two more records.

Lopez-Alegria,who already racked up five spacewalks during Expedition 14 - for a career totalof 10 excursions - to become NASA's reigning champion, will set a new U.S.endurance record for the longest single spaceflight after 215 continuous daysin orbit. But setting the new records, he told reporters this week, was not thepurpose of his spaceflight and occurred by luck and happenstance.

Simonyi, 58,will set his own record of sorts. By the luck of orbital mechanics and a rainedout primary landing site, his planned 11-day spaceflight was extended threeextra days and will make him the most experienced private spaceflyer to dateonce he lands.

The formerMicrosoft software developer and lifelong spaceflight enthusiast is payingbetween $20 million and $25 million for 14 days in orbit - 12 of them aboardthe ISS - under an agreement between Russia's Federal Space Agency and theVirginia-based firm Space Adventures. He launched towards the ISS on April 7with the Expedition 15 crew and has been chronicling the flight via his missionWeb site: www.charlesinspace.com.

"I amworking with a new team with Misha and Michael," Simonyi said of the returning Expedition14 astronauts, referring to Tyurin by his nickname, during a radio broadcastposted to his Web site this week. "We are just getting used to each other's styleand I'm just really looking forward to working with them to perform the return."

Lopez-Alegriaand Tyurin launched into orbit with U.S. space tourist Anousheh Ansari and begantheir long-duration mission with European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter,who was already aboard the ISS in September and returned to Earth in December aboardDiscovery once Williams arrived.

TheExpedition 14 commander has said in the past that the familiar tug of gravity,which would allow him to lie down in his own bed for the first time in half ayear, is one of the things he's looking forward to most after his longspaceflight.

"I wouldstart with the sensation of lying down, of pasta al dente in my mouth, thesensation of my seven-year-old son hugging me," Lopez-Alegria told FloridaToday Monday when asked what he missed the most during his flight. "All ofthose things I miss, and the list could be really long."

NASAwill broadcast landing day activities for Simonyi and the Expedition 14 crewlive via NASA TV beginning at 1:30 a.m. EDT (0530 GMT). Click here for SPACE.com's NASA TV feed and ISS mission updates.

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