American Ron Garan, left, and Russians Alexander Samokutyaev and Andrey Borisenko join hands before their launching to the International Space Station in April. Photo Credit/NASA photo
Three of the International Space Station's six crew members prepared to depart for Earth late Sept. 15 aboard their Soyuz-TMA 21 spacecraft.
Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev and NASA's Ron Garan expected to descend under parachute into southern Kazakhstan, touching down on Sept. 16, just after midnight, or around 10 a.m., local time, after nearly 164 days in orbit.
They will undock from the Russian segment Poisk module at 8:38 p.m., EDT, marking the end of Expedition 28 and the start of Expedition 29.
Command of the station will switch to American Mike Fossum with the Soyuz departure. Currently, Fossum, Russian Sergei Volkov and Japan's Satoshi Furukawa are scheduled to shoulder station operations well into November, as Russia recovers from the Aug. 24 loss of the Progress 44 spacecraft.
The space freighter plummeted into the Altai region of Siberia after a third stage failure of the Soyuz-U rocket. The third stage of the freighter version is very similar to the Soyuz-FG used for crew launches.
"To become the commander is a very humbling experience for me," said Fossum, who arrived with his two crewmates in June. "We've had some challenging times up here and some challenges now."
"You have been an excellent commander during an historic time for the ISS," Fossum told Borisenko in a brief ceremony marking the command change. "You have been a teacher and a mentor for us."
Both crews joined forces with the astronauts launched on NASA's final shuttle missions, STS 135 in July and STS 134 in May. The missions marked the end of the major assembly and outfitting of the station's U.S. segment. The May flight also delivered the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an external multinational observatory designed to search for evidence of primordial anti-matter.
"This has been a very productive, very successful, very challenging mission," said Garan, prior to the departure. "We are well on our way to full utilization of this incredible complex. I think the fruits of everyone's labors will be seen real soon."
Following the 44 Progress loss, the station's NASA-led 15-nation partnership decided to delay the Soyuz-TMA 21 descent by a week.
This week, Russia announced it was aiming for a Nov. 10 launching of a replacement crew, Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov and American Dan Burbank. More discussions among the partners on the recovery plan are scheduled in the week ahead.
Currently, Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov are scheduled to descend aboard their Soyuz TMA-02M on Nov. 17, just days before seasonal changes that would preclude a desired landing in daylight in Kazakhstan until late December.