Just joined crews aboard the International Space Station are striding through the start of a shortened handover period as one group begins a lengthy stay on the outpost and the other prepares for a return to Earth early next week.
U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank and two cosmonaut colleagues -- Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin -- floated into the station today after a two-day trip from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Their arrival came about three months later than planned. Their launch was delayed by an investigation into the Aug. 24 launch failure of a Soyuz rocket similar to the one that propelled them into orbit.
With the current crew facing a Nov. 22 deadline to depart the station, the late arrival cuts a normal two-week change-of-command in half. Burbank, the incoming commander, isn't worried.
"We all feel great, and we can't wait to get started," Burbank said during a hatch-opening and welcome ceremony.
A veteran of two shuttle missions to the station during its decade-long assembly, Burbank is the first U.S. astronaut to fly to the outpost aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft since July's retirement of the iconic American shuttle fleet. The arrival of he and his crew marked the restoration of a full staff of six for the first time since Sept. 16 -- the day NASA astronaut Ron Garan and two colleagues returned to terra firma.
"All we can say is it's great to be working with a full house again," NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid said from the U.S. Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"It's fun showing the new guys around the house," outgoing commander Mike Fossum said.
With a shortened change-of-command inevitable, Fossum over the past three months has been video-taping "how-to" tutorials on station operations. The videos cover subjects that range from cleaning air filters to operating laboratory facilities.
Those videos have been beamed back to Earth for Burbank and his colleagues to view during final training prior to their 11:14 p.m. launch on Sunday. Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin docked at the station at 12:24 a.m. today. Hatches between their Soyuz spacecraft and the station swung open at 2:39 a.m.
Fossum, cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Satoshi Furukawa of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are scheduled to depart the station next Monday. Live coverage of a 2:45 p.m. farewell and hatch closure will begin at 2:15 p.m. Soyuz undocking is slated for 6 p.m. A deorbit burn will take place at 8:30 p.m., and landing is slated for 9:24 p.m. You can watch live coverage here in The Flame Trench. Click the NASA TV box on the right to launch our NASA TV viewer.
Flight rules prohibit night returns in their landing zone in central Kazakhstan, and Monday presents the last daylight landing opportunity until late December. An extended stay through December would not have been an option because the Soyuz that Fossum and his crew will fly home will exceed its design life before the next daylight landing opportunity in late December.
A crew made up of U.S. astronaut Don Pettit, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Andre Kuipers of the European Space Agency will launch Dec. 21 and arrive at the station on Dec. 23, restoring full staffing once again.
The international outpost has been staffed continuously for more than 11 years -- since an initial expedition crew opened the station for business on Nov. 2, 2000.
ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the NASA TV screen grab of two crews joining aboard the International Space Station. In the back row (left to right) are Satoshi Furukawa of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, U.S. astronaut and current station commander Mike Fossum, and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, a second-generation space traveler. He is the son of Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Volkov. In the front row are (left to right) Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank and Anatoly Ivanishin. Russian cosmonauts Shkaplerov and Ivanishin both are making their first space flights. Fossum will hand command of the station over to Burbank before a return to Earth next Monday.