Monday, May 23, 2011

Hatch closed behind departing Soyuz crew

Hatches were closed between the International Space Station and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft at 2:45 p.m. EDT, setting the stage for its departure and a historic photo opportunity later today.

American Cady Coleman, Italian Paolo Nespoli and Russian Dmitry Kondratyev plan to undock from the station at 5:35 p.m. EDT, ending Expedition 27.

Never before has a another vehicle, manned or unmanned, left the station while a shuttle was present, a "dual docked operation" station partners have always avoided to reduce complexity and risk.

"It's unprecedented and we've worked hard to get here," said Derek Hassmann, the lead flight director during Endeavour's docked mission.

Inside the Soyuz TMA-20, the three departing crew members will don Russian Sokol launch-and-entry suits and peform leak checks to prepare the ship for its undocking from the Zarya module's Earth-facing Rassvet docking port.

In a change from normal procedure, an internal hatch between the spacecraft's habitation or "orbital" module and its descent module, where the crew members are seated for re-entry, will not be closed.

Nespoli will climb into the habitation module, remove his gloves and use Russian digital and video cameras to record pictures of the shuttle and station, along with three other Russian and Euopean vehicles.

The pictures, taken from a distance of roughly 600 feet while the station rotates the shuttle into view, may be the only opportunity to capture the shuttle docked at the outpost it largely built before the shuttle program ends after one more flight.

The Soyuz crew is scheduled to land in Kazakhstan at 10:26 p.m. EDT today (8:26 a.m. Tuesday local time). The images could be released as soon as late Tuesday afternoon.

Six Endeavour astronauts went to sleep at 12:26 p.m. today and have the option to remain asleep or get up to see the Soyuz undock and photography takes place.

"We did put a message on board that gives them some tips about what windows have good views, how to use the cameras and other tings they have available to them," said Hassmann. "If I had to guess and if it was me in that position, I'd be awake for a couple hours."

An American and two Russian station crew members will remain on the outpost to begin Expedition 28: commander Andrey Borisenko and flight engineers Ron Garan and Alexander Samokutyaev.

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