Strapped into a cramped Soyuz ferry craft, the outgoing space station commander and two Russian cosmonauts undocked from the International Space Station early Friday and plunged back to Earth to close out a five-and-a-half-month stay in space.
Descending through a clear blue sky under a large red-and-white parachute, the Soyuz TMA-22 descent module landed near Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, at 7:45 a.m. EDT (GMT-4; 2:45 p.m. local time) after a 56-minute fall from orbit. Russian recovery forces and NASA support personnel stationed nearby quickly converged on the spacecraft to assist the station fliers as they began their readjustment to gravity after 165 days in weightlessness.
"Having done it a couple of times in the shuttle, I really look forward to the experience to see what it's like to ride a Soyuz back to planet Earth," outgoing space station commander Daniel Burbank, 50, said in a recent video downlink. "So it'll be a little bit sharper deceleration, particularly at the bottom, but I think it'll be an awful lot of fun. If the ride uphill was any indication, it'll be a tremendous amount of fun, and at the end of all of that, I get to go home and I get to be with my family."
After bidding their three station crewmates a final farewell, Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov, and Anatoly Ivanishin floated into the Soyuz TMA-22 and closed the hatch at 1:12 a.m.. After carrying out leak checks and activating critical systems, the trio undocked from the station's upper Poisk module at 4:18 a.m.
After backing away to a point about 12 miles from the station, Shkaplerov monitored a four-minute 18-second deorbit rocket firing starting at 6:49 a.m., which slowed the craft by about 258 mph to begin the descent to Earth. Just before entry, the three modules making up the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft separated and the central crew compartment, protected by a heat shield, plunged into the discernible atmosphere at 7:21 a.m.
There were no reports of any technical problems and all three crew members appeared relaxed and in good spirits after they were assisted from the descent module. After medical checks, Burbank will be flown directly back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for debriefing and post-flight physical therapy while Shkaplerov and Ivanishin will be flown to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow.
Expedition 31 commander Oleg Kononenko, European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers and NASA flight engineer Donald Petit, launched to the station December 21 aboard the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft, will have the lab complex to themselves until three fresh crew members -- Gennady Padalka, Sergei Revin, and NASA astronaut Joseph Acaba -- blast off May 14 U.S. time aboard the Soyuz TMA-04M ferry craft.
"When I sit down and think for a moment about returning to planet Earth, part of me is really going to miss this," Burbank, a father of two, said before entry. "It's indescribably wonderful to live in space, to have the incredible privilege of being up here, to do the research we do, to just float around, to look out the window and see planet Earth below and the stars above us.
"But by the same token, it'll be so wonderful to see family again. You get to see your family once a week, you get to talk to them on the phone every time you get a chance, maybe once or twice a day even. But it's not the same as being there. So leaving this place will be hard, seeing my family again will be the most wonderful consolation prize you can imagine."
And like all astronauts returning from a long-duration stay in space, Burbank said he was eager to experience life in the open once again.
"Smelling the aromas of planet Earth, landing on the Kazak steppe in our Soyuz and just climbing out of the hatch and feeling fresh air on our face will be wonderful," he said. "There's a lot of food that I can't have up here that I would very much like to have, that'll also be a good consolation prize. The ride itself, leaving space station and re-entering Earth's atmosphere in a capsule will be pretty spectacular by all accounts."
With the Soyuz TMA-22 crew's departure, Kononenko, Pettit, and Kuipers will face a particularly busy few weeks in space until Padalka's crew arrives.
On May 7, Space Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's first station-bound Dragon spacecraft -- the first of a new breed of unmanned commercial cargo ships intended to make up for the loss of NASA's retired space shuttle fleet.
After testing the craft's navigation and abort systems during an approach May 9, the Dragon capsule will pull up to within about 30 feet of the station on May 10 so Kuipers and Pettit, operating the station's Canadian-built robot arm, can latch on and pull it in for docking at the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module.
"The Dragon vehicle does not dock to space station, it flies close to space station and then Andre and I, working together, will fly the arm close to the vehicle and we'll kind of lasso it, we'll snag it, then we'll use the arm to manipulate the vehicle and bring it up to one of our docking systems," Pettit said. "We call this berthing, not docking. And then once it's berthed to space station, we'll outfit the hatch area and open the hatch and then we can start off loading the supplies."
Testing the Dragon spacecraft and its complex computer guidance software is the primary objective of the exercise. But the crew has a secondary objective as well.
"Hopefully, there'll be a bunch of goodies inside for us," Pettit said. "When the Russians fly a Progress vehicle up, they always put a few goodies in there for us, like fresh fruit. We live in this mechanized environment where all our food comes from a bag and it's really, really nice to get some fresh fruit. ... I'm kind of hoping that Dragon will have at least some kind of fresh fruit for us as sort of a little goodie when we open the hatch and start off loading the supplies."