ISS Station Commander Jeff Williams, from NASA, handed over command of the massive orbiting outpost to Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotev, in a formal ceremony early today (Wed, March 17) in preparation for the return to earth of two crew members early Thursday. The ISS population will be reduced to a crew of three until the scheduled April 4 arrival of the next three person station crew inside a Russian capsule. Both Williams and Kotev have previously served on the ISS for long duration missions.
This marks the end to Expedition 22 and the start of Expedition 23. The five person international crew of Expedition 22 comprised Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineers Maxim Suraev, Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi, and T.J. Creamer.
“I would like to thank the crew here for supporting me and for actually being really autonomous. I mean, I didn’t have to do anything, everyone is a self starter here, everyone did a very good job in everything that came before us. Well beyond things that were asked,” Williams said. “It was amazing that we were about to accomplish everything planned.
Williams thanked Kotov by saying, “You came with a lot of experience, you made great contributions from end to end on the space station with your previous experience. And even through today, I continue to take your advice on things and learn new things from you. Thank you for that.
Kotov heaped praising upon Williams saying, You demonstrated excellent leadership and a good example, being an excellent commander. Thank you for leaving station in such excellent condition. We’ll try to follow your way and keep it in good shape. Thank you, Jeff, thank you, Max, and Godspeed.”
After bidding a final farewell this evening, they’ll float aboard their return vessel and close the hatches between the ships at about 11:40 PM EDT tonight. US astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Sureav are scheduled to undock and depart aboard their Soyuz TMA-16 capsule at about 4 AM EDT. The first separation burn is set for 4:06 AM.
A four minute and 19 second de-orbit burn at 6:34 AM will send the craft on an irreversible course for the fiery plunge through the earth’s atmosphere. The heat shield will protect the two man crew from the scorching heat of reentry. They are set to land at 7:23 AM in the steppes of Kazakhstan.
With frigid weather around 20 F, ground snow and gusty winds predicted to greet Williams and Suraev at the landing site, Russian and NASA personnel are staying overnight in nearby Arkalyk to assure a swift recovery of the crew. Weather permitting, four additional helicopters will depart from Kustanai Thursday and refuel in Arkalyk en route to the landing site to assist with the recovery.
Williams and Sureav will have spent 169 days in space following their launch on Sep. 30, 2009 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. For a brief interlude in December, they served as a skeleton crew of two following the departure of the three person Expedition 21 crew whom they replaced. On Dec 22, Santa’s helpers magically arrived in the form of Kotev, Creamer and Noguchi bearing a Christmas tree and gifts for Williams and Sureav for a festive holiday celebration of peace and good will.
The stations crew size will again increase to its maximum of six, when the next Soyuz blasts off on April 2 at 12:04 AM with a three person Russian/American crew composed of Commander Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko and Tracy Dyson aboard the Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft.
Space Shuttle Discovery is currently set to lift off on April 5 from pad 39 A with a seven person crew and the ‘Leonardo’ Multi Purpose Logistics Module which is packed with living supplies, replacements parts and science experiments and gear. The two week assembly mission will feature three spacewalks and three female astronauts, including one from Japan.
After the planned retirement of the Space Shuttle later this year, all NASA astronauts will have only one choice to fly into space and reach the ISS. That will be on board the Russian Soyuz capsules at about $50 million per seat.
President Obama decided to completely terminate Project Constellation and cancel NASA’s Orion capsule which was NASA’s planned vehicle to replace the shuttle. Russia had previously charged about $20 to 30 million, but the price has skyrocketed as the looming end to NASA shuttle program rapidly approaches.
Over $9 Billion has been spent on Project Constellation since 2004. Tens of thousands of US jobs will be rapidly lost with the shuttle shutdown. The Obama Administration has instead decided to fund the development of “space taxis” by commercial providers to deliver astronauts to low Earth orbit, or LEO and the ISS. It is not known when these “taxis” will be flown and there is intense opposition to Obama’s plan from key members of the US Congress.
The undocking will be carried live on NASA TV