Space station crew begins preflight procedures for return flight home

Saturday, October 23rd 2004, 11:29 am
By: News On 6

ARKALYK, Kazakhstan (AP) _ A U.S.-Russian crew prepared Saturday to bid goodbye to the International Space Station and hurtle back to Earth inside a Russian Soyuz space capsule, ending a six-month mission in space.

The bell-shaped Soyuz TMA-4 capsule was scheduled to disconnect from the orbiting outpost at 5:07 p.m. EDT Saturday and carry its crew on a speedy 3 1/2-hour trip home.

If all goes as planned, the Soyuz should thump down beneath a parachute at 8:37 p.m. EDT in Kazakhstan's barren steppe, where American and Russian officials will be waiting in helicopters for the first sign of the craft.

Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka and U.S. astronaut Mike Fincke have been in space since April. Strapped in alongside them will be cosmonaut Yuri Shargin, who spent eight days on the space station. Shargin arrived Oct. 16 along with the station's new U.S.-Russian two-man crew, Salizhan Sharipov and Leroy Chiao.

Valery Lyndin, spokesman for Moscow's Mission Control, said the returning crew was given permission to sleep in Saturday morning to build up strength and energy for their descent home, which requires hours of preflight work such as preparing the Soyuz and donning their bulky spacesuits, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.

Russia's non-reusable Soyuz has become the linchpin of the global community's manned space program, filling in for the U.S. shuttle fleet, grounded since Columbia burned up on re-entry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The Soyuz is the workhorse of Russia's cash-strapped space program, and it boasts a stellar safety record. But minor glitches do happen from time to time. The crew arriving at the space station Oct. 16 had to turn off autopilot, apply the brakes and manually moor the Soyuz to the docking point after an unidentified problem resulted in a dangerously high approach speed.

In May 2003, the first time that American astronauts returned on the Soyuz, a computer malfunction sent the crew on a dive so steep that the astronauts' tongues rolled back in their mouths. The crew landed so far off-target that more than two hours passed before rescuers knew the men were safe.

Now the Soyuz is outfitted with satellite phones and a global positioning satellite, or GPS, system. Russia also asked the ex-Soviet republic of Kazakhstan to close a large area of its airspace before the scheduled landing, and teams of Russian rescuers were on alert in helicopters and off-road convoys throughout the steppe.

One of their main bases is in Arkalyk, a sleepy town of Soviet-era apartment buildings and dusty roadways near the targeted landing site.

After landing, the crew usually receives a quick medical checkup before heading back to Moscow's Star City, the home-base of Russia's space program.

While in space, Padalka and Fincke went on four space walks, including one crucial mission to repair a gyroscope that orients the station in space.

``We are very glad that we leave the station to other spacemen in good condition,'' Padalka was quoted as saying by ITAR-Tass.

NASA has said its shuttles should be flying again by early summer.