Two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut are strapping into a Soyuz space capsule at the International Space Station, preparing to depart the outpost and return to Earth after a six-month tour of duty on the complex.
Outgoing station commander Andrey Borisenko, flight engineer Alexander Samokutyaev and U.S. astronaut Ron Garan closed the hatch between the Soyuz and the station about 5:30 p.m., wrapping up 162 days on the outpost and 164 days in space. They launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 5 and arrived at the station on April 7.
Borisenko and his crew are scheduled to undock from the station at 8:38 p.m. Then at about 11 p.m., braking rockets and on spacecraft will fire, slowing the Soyuz enough for a 55-minute dive through the atmosphere. Landing is Kazakhstan is scheduled at about midnight tonight.
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U.S. astronaut Mike Fossum now is in command of the station; his crew includes Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa.
NASA and its Russian partners, meanwhile, approved a plan today that will ensure the sation will remain staffed in the wake of the Aug. 24 failure of a Soyuz rocket similar to the one that launches crews to the station.
On Nov. 14, the next three station crew members will launch, arriving at the station two days later.
On Nov. 22, Fossum and his crew will return to Earth.
On or about Dec. 26, another crew of three will launch, bringing station station back to full strength.