April 8, 2006

International space station crew heads home

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - After turning over
control of the International Space Station to a new crew, a
U.S. astronaut, a Russian cosmonaut and a visiting guest
astronaut from Brazil climbed into a Soyuz capsule on Saturday
and fired its jets to return to Earth.

Commander Bill McArthur, flight engineer Valery Tokarev and
Brazil's first astronaut, Marcos Pontes, departed the orbital
outpost shortly before 4:30 p.m. EDT and were expected to touch
down in a remote region of Kazakhstan three hours later.

"Congratulations on a very successfully led expedition and
a very safe landing," astronaut Julie Payette, speaking from
NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, radioed to McArthur
as he and his crewmates prepared to enter the Soyuz.

At the time of McArthur's launch six months ago, there was
no plan in place for his ride home. Russia's original agreement
to supply Soyuz rides for American crewmembers ended with the
return of McArthur's predecessor in October 2005.

But U.S. legislators agreed to lift a ban on the purchase
by NASA of space services and hardware from Russia. The ban was
enacted on concerns that Russia was helping Iran develop
nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.

Though weapons proliferation issues remain a concern, U.S.
occupancy of the space station would have come to an end if
NASA had not been granted a waiver to buy Russian space

NASA's own transport to the space station, the
three-vehicle shuttle fleet, has only flown one marred mission
since the 2003 Columbia disaster, which claimed the lives of
seven astronauts.

Additional work on the shuttles' fuel tanks, which was
determined to be the cause of the accident, continues and NASA
hopes to return the shuttle fleet fully to flight in July.

During a televised farewell ceremony, McArthur, a former
Army officer and test pilot, noted that he and Tokarev were the
only two people to be living off of Earth and that "it has been
an extraordinary privilege for us to represent humankind."

McArthur and Tokarev were the 12th crew to live aboard the
space station. They were replaced by commander Pavel Vinogradov
and flight engineer Jeffrey Williams.

Guest astronaut Pontes, who flew to the station with the
incoming crew, spent eight days on the station conducting
experiments, photographing Earth and being interviewed.

Recovery teams were in position in Kazakhstan to assist the
returning crew.