Station trio set for return to Earth


File photo of a Soyuz spacecraft seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
File photo of a Soyuz spacecraft seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

A veteran cosmonaut, a German volcanologist and a Navy test pilot-turned-astronaut whose mastery of social media earned him — and NASA — a global following, bid their space station crewmates farewell and sealed the hatch of their Soyuz ferry craft Sunday, setting the stage for undocking and a fiery trip back to Earth to close out a 165-day stay aboard the International Space Station.

Soyuz TMA-13M commander Maxim Suraev, flanked on the right by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst and on the left by NASA’s Reid Wiseman, the flight engineer, planned to undock from the Russian Rassvet module just after 7:30 p.m. EST (GMT-5) Sunday. Monitoring the departure from inside the lab will be Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova.

“This is the most unique ship with the most amazing crew and the most incredible ground support I’ve ever worked with, and it’s been an honor and a priviledge to spend 165 days up here,” Wiseman said Saturday. “I’m looking forward to heading home.”

After moving a safe distance away, Suraev will monitor a four-minute 41-second rocket firing to slow the ship by about 286 mph, just enough to lower the far side of the orbit deep into the atmosphere. After a half-hour free fall, the three modules making up the Soyuz spacecraft will separate and the crew, strapped into the central descent module, will plunge back into the discernible atmosphere around 10:35 p.m. at an altitude of 63 miles.

Using atmospheric friction to slow down, the descent module will reach an altitude of just under 7 miles at 10:44 p.m. when the main parachute will deploy. Touchdown on the steppe of Kazakhstan northeast of Arkalyk is expected at 10:58:34 p.m. (9:58 a.m. Monday local time). Forecasters predicted low clouds, possibly fog and temperatures in the mid to low 20s.

Here is a timeline of major entry events (in EST and mission elapsed time; best viewed with fixed-width font):


04:00:00 PM…165…01…02…18…Crew boards Soyuz; hatch closure
07:31:31 PM…165…04…33…49…Undocking
07:31:41 PM…165…04…33…59…Soyuz in active attitude control
07:34:31 PM…165…04…36…49…Soyuz separation burn No. 1
07:35:51 PM…165…04…38…09…Soyuz separation burn No. 2
09:39:01 PM…165…06…41…19…Sunrise at Landing Site
10:05:09 PM…165…07…07…27…Deorbit burn start (dV: 128.0 m/s/286 mph)
10:09:50 PM…165…07…12…08…Deorbit burn complete (dT: 4:41)
10:32:49 PM…165…07…35…07…Module separation (altitude: 140.0 km/87 mi)
10:35:34 PM…165…07…37…52…Atmospheric entry (altitude: 102.0 km/63 mi)
10:37:18 PM…165…07…39…36…Entry guidance start (altitude: 79.9 km/50 mi)
10:42:16 PM…165…07…44…34…Maximum G-load (altitude: 34.0 km/21 mi)
10:44:17 PM…165…07…46…35…Parachute deploy (altitude: 10.7 km/6.6 mi)
10:58:34 PM…165…08…00…52…Landing (Daily Orbit 1, 50°58′ N, 67°10′ E)

As usual with Soyuz landings, Russian recovery crews, flight surgeons and officials with NASA and ESA were deployed near the landing site to help the returning station fliers out of the cramped descent module after nearly five-and-a-half months in the weightless environment of space.

“I’m looking forward to experiencing it,” Wiseman said of re-entry in an interview last week with CBS News. “Everyone I’ve talked to says it’s the world’s greatest roller coaster ride, and I think nothing can mentally prepare me for this except going through it. So let’s just go though it and then I’m sure I’ll have some great stories on the other side to share with you.”

After initial medical checks and satellite phone calls to friends and family, all three will fly by helicopter to Kustanai where they will enjoy a traditional Kazakh welcome home ceremony.

Suraev than will board a Russian jet for the flight back to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City near Moscow. A NASA jet will ferry Wiseman and Gerst to Prestwick, Scotland, where Gerst will change planes and fly back to Europe. The NASA jet will take Wiseman and his contingent back to Houston.

During a change-of-command ceremony Saturday, Suraev, commander of the station’s 41st crew, handed over the lab complex to Wilmore, who now heads up the Expedition 42 crew. Wilmore, Samokutyaev and Serova will have the station to themselves until Nov. 23 when Soyuz TMA-15M commander Anton Shkaplerov, NASA astronaut Terry Virts and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti arrive to boost the station’s crew back to six.

“They say this is the most complex machine that humanity has ever built,” Gerst said, floating with his crewmates in the Japanese Kibo lab module. “Now, even after half a year on board, it is impossible for me to fathom how complex it is to actually operate this machine. What I’m sure of is this is the finest example of teamwork that I’ve ever seen in my life. I’d like to say thanks to all the ground support teams, all those people who dedicated all those hours of work to us.”

Wilmore congratulated Suraev and his crewmates for “a wonderful two months” together in space.

“I’m truly honored bny the opportunity and humbled by the opportunity to have this title, it’s special for me and my family,” Wilmore said. “But it’s a very minor thing when you think about all the people around the globe working together for the common good of mankind.”

Wiseman became a rock star of sorts for NASA, using Twitter, six-second Vine videos and other social media avenues to share his experiences — and spectacular views of Earth — with a wide audience: 361,000 followers on Twitter alone. Many of the images posted by Wiseman and his crewmates are posted here:

“This is my first spaceflight, and I just wanted to share some of the newness, some of the uniqueness of this environment,” he told CBS News. “And I think we’ve been successful with that. I think the Vines, putting this imagery in motion, has really captured the imagination of a good number of folks. And that was my goal, was to use that imagery, put it in motion, and let people try to experience this, let them try to live this with me. For that, I think it was great.”

Gerst posted frequent Tweets as well, including this one Sunday: “Thanks to all of you for flying to space with me, it’s been a blast. I am glad we did this together!”

Wiseman downlinked scores of Earth scenes, many of them spectacular views of towns, cities, mountains and other striking features.

“Watching the Saharan sands blowing across the Atlantic, looking down at ocean currents, seeing hurricanes and typhoons and really, I think the biggest thing I’ll take away from this is watching our Earth change over the six months I’ve been up here, watching the weather patterns change, seeing summer, fall and now into winter, it really makes you realize we don’t just live on Earth, Earth is just a part of all of us. I really love looking out the window at that.

But he clearly looked forward to coming home and “hugging my wife and kids, that’s number one.”

“And then just being able to select the food that I want to eat,” he added. “The food up here is actually pretty good, but (after) six months it’ll be nice to be able to just get in the car, drive to the store and grab whatever I want and then having my kitchen at my disposal to make some good food.”

He’s also looking forward to simply sitting down.

“I haven’t sat down in 160 days and just that feeling of sitting down and having gravity pull me down onto a chair, I’m really looking forward to that,” he said.

During his stay aboard the station, Wiseman participated in two spacewalks, venturing outside with Gerst on Oct. 7 to move a pump module and again on Oct. 15, with Wilmore, to replace a solar array electronics component. He and Gerst also carried out a full slate of science experiments, performed routine maintenance and participated in numerous interviews and videochats with reporters and students.

“I’m going to miss the work,” he said. “Really, the work up here, I didn’t expect this, but it turns out it’s actually really fun. I love doing the science, I love working with the team on the ground. So from the start to end of my day, I’m going to miss it all.”

Near the end of his stay in space, two dramatic failures sent shock waves through the commercial space industry. An Orbital Sciences Antares rocket carrying a cargo capsule bound for the space station exploded 15 seconds after launch from Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28. Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane broke apart during a test flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and injuring another.

Wiseman said he had friends at both companies “and that touches me pretty closely.”

“The great part about this industry is, it will be better at the end for both of these mistakes, or mishaps, and we’ll pull through. … We’ll figure out what happened, and if it’s the correct time we’ll fly again, both of these vehicles, and if they determine that they can’t, then we’ll look for other options down the road. This is a setback that happens in this industry, and there will be recovery, there will be healing, and then there will be success down the road.”