Two veteranspaceflyers and South Korea?s first astronaut will say farewell to the crew ofthe International Space Station (ISS) tonight and prepare to head home.
Expedition16 commander Peggy Whitson, flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko and SouthKorean bioengineer So-yeon Yi will climb aboard their Russian-built SoyuzTMA-11 tonight and cast off from the station early Saturday. The trio areaiming for a 4:30 a.m. EDT (0830 GMT) landing on the Central Asian steppes ofKazakhstan.
?I thinkwe?re going to be ready to go on Saturday,? Whitson told SPACE.com thisweek via a video link, adding that she?s looking forward to seeing family andfriends again in person. ?I know I?m not really looking forward to the gravitypart down there.?
Whitson andMalenchenko are in the homestretch of a busy six months in orbit. During theirflight, station astronauts performed five spacewalks and hosted three visitingNASA space shuttle crews that added new international modules, a laboratory anda massive Canadian robot to the ISS.
?I reallydo think that we?ve made a major to step to make the station moreinternational,? Whitson said.
Whitson andMalenchenko turned the station overto its new commander - Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov - and his crewon Thursday.
Volkov, theson of famedcosmonaut Alexander Volkov, is making his first spaceflight and launchedApril 8 with Yi and flight engineer Oleg Kononenko.
?We wereable to talk a lot,? Volkov said of his father. ?He wished good luck for me,for my crew.?
The thirdmember of Volkov?s crew, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, was already aboard thestation as part of the Expedition 16 team. He will stay on until hisreplacement arrives in June.
Yi,meanwhile, is completing a 10-day science mission as part of a commercial agreementbetween the South Korean government and Russia?s Federal Space Agency.
?Time fliesso fast,? Yi told reporters earlier this week. ?Actually, now I don?t want togo back. I want to fly longer than before.?
WithWhitson and Yi taking up two of the three seats aboard their Soyuz capsule,Saturday?s landing will mark the first time women have outnumbered men aboard aspacecraft in flight. Malenchenko will command the Soyuz flight back to Earth.
?We werejust talking about that,? Whitson said, referring to Malenchenko. ?I said?Yuri, this time women out number men on a spacecraft!? ? But he?s a greatsport about it.?
Preparationsfor Saturday?s Soyuz landing will actually begin tonight at about 10:00 p.m.EDT (0200 April 19 GMT), when Whitson, Malenchenko and Yi will say goodbye totheir Expedition 17 counterparts, shut themselves inside their spacecraft andprepare to cast off from the ISS.
The Soyuzis due to undock from an Earth-facing berth on the station?s Russian-builtZarya module on Saturday at 1:06 a.m. EDT (0506 GMT), then fire its rocketengines at 3:40 a.m. EDT (0740 GMT) for about four minutes and 19 seconds in abraking maneuver to begin the descent back to Earth.
Whitson,who seta new record Wednesday for the most days in space by a U.S. astronaut, saidshe was looking forward to landing aboard a Russian Soyuz. As the station?s firstfemale commander, she will have about 377 days in orbit across two ISSmissions after tomorrow?s planned touchdown, though her 2002 launch and landingoccurred on a NASA shuttle.
?I thinkthat will be personally satisfying,? Whitson said of the Soyuz return. ?Anotheradvantage is that once we undock, we?ll be home on the ground in a few hours.So I think it will be a quick trip.?
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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