International Space Crew Back

Monday, March 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPACE CENTER, Houston-The first crew of the international space station is on its way back to Earth.

The three-man crew, Commander Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, left space station Alpha late Sunday night aboard space shuttle Discovery. They and the shuttle crew are scheduled to return to Earth early Wednesday.

Shepherd, a 51-year-old Navy captain, and his Russian crewmates spent 41/2 months on Alpha, transforming it from a spartan, three-room outpost to a sophisticated four-room complex capable of scientific research.

"We hold you in admiration as we prepare to bring you home," Discovery Commander James Wetherbee said of Alpha's first crew. "This has been an arduous duty for you. This ship was not built in a safe harbor, it was built on the high seas."

During a short ceremony before leaving, Shepherd formally handed over control of Alpha to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev, who along with astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms will remain on board for the next four months. Alpha's second crew was brought to the orbiting outpost on the shuttle.

Shepherd was visibly moved as he handed the ship's log to Usachev. Shepherd followed naval protocol in the farewell ceremony, reading his speech with care.

"We pass to your care Alpha's log with the hope that many successful entries here are recorded," Shepherd said. "May the good will and spirit and sense of mission we have enjoyed on board endure. Sail her well."

Mission Control thanked Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev for their "outstanding duty."

"It has been an honor and a privilege," radioed Mission Control.

The ceremony ended with bear hugs between the two station crews.

Discovery is also bringing back an Italian-made module it brought to Alpha. The module, named Leonardo, had been filled with 5 tons of supplies and is returning with about 1 ton of trash and used equipment from the space station.

Discovery, which was launched March 8, is due to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday. But the early weather forecast is not promising, with a threat of high winds and rain.

Once back on Earth, Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev face several months of rehabilitation and physical therapy as their bodies get readjusted to gravity.