The firstfemale commander of the International Space Station (ISS) handed control of theorbiting laboratory over to a new crew Thursday as she prepares for a return toEarth this weekend.
NASAastronaut Peggy Whitson turned the station?s reins over to Russiancosmonaut Sergei Volkov in a traditional ceremony before her planned Saturdaylanding on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
A RussianSoyuz TMA-11 spacecraft is scheduled to ferry Whitson, cosmonaut YuriMalenchenko and bioengineer So-yeon Yi — SouthKorea?s first astronaut — back to Earth on April 19 for their planned at about4:30 a.m. EDT (0830 GMT) landing.
?I?m officiallyhanding over the International Space Station over to Sergei Volkov, and I?mvery happy to do so,? Whitson said during the brief, televised ceremony. ?We?vehad a really great privilege and honor to be here on the station when so muchhas changed, and we feel like we?re handing over a very beautiful station toyou guys and look forward to your work.?
Whitson passedthe 374-day mark in space on Wednesday to seta new U.S. record for the most cumulative time in orbit.
She is wrappingup the station?s Expedition 16 mission with Malenchenko after six months inspace. They launched to the station last October and hosted three visiting NASAshuttle crews that boosted the outpost?s living space by delivering aconnecting module, European laboratory and, most recently, a Japanese storage roomand Canadian robot.
?Thank youso much for such a pretty station, a beautiful station,? said Volkov, the second-generationcosmonaut in command station?s new Expedition 17 crew. ?We wish for you asafe trip back home and good luck.?
Volkov andExpedition 17 flight engineer Oleg Kononenko launched to the space station withYi on April 8 and arrived two days later. The third member of their crew, NASAastronaut Garrett Reisman, was already aboard the station as an Expedition 16flight engineer.
Yi, 29, isflying a 10-day mission under a $25 million commercial agreement between Russiaand South Korea. She will complete a series of experiments and educationaloutreach activities before departing the station with Whitson and Malenchenko.
?As partinggifts, we have a couple for you?the first one is Garrett,? Whitson told Volkovas the six station astronauts erupted with laughter. ?I know he?s going to be agreat addition to your crew.?
Reismanarrived at the station in mid-March during a NASA shuttle mission. Hisreplacement is due to arrive in early June.
Whitsonalso presented Volkov with her leftover supply of hot sauce, which she served asa staple during meals aboard the space station.
?You?re incontrol now,? she told Volkov. ?You have the sauce.?
NASAwill broadcast the undocking and landing of Yi and the station's Expedition 16crew live on NASA TV beginning Friday at 9:30 p.m. EDT (0130 April 19 GMT). Click here for SPACE.com's ISS missionupdates and NASA TV feed.
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