STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION
Two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut wrapping up a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station readied their Soyuz ferry ship for a fiery plunge back to Earth early Saturday amid preparations in Florida for launch of another station-bound crew Thursday aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
While Russian recovery forces deployed in Kazakhstan Friday for the Soyuz landing, SpaceX engineers hauled a Falcon 9 rocket and the Crew Dragon to the launch pad a few hours before the ship’s three-man one-woman crew flew in to make final preparations for launch.
“It is awesome being at Kennedy Space Center, especially on launch week,” Crew-2 commander Shane Kimbrough told reporters at the runway. “It’s definitely getting real. Our crew is extremely well trained (and) we are really excited and ready to go.”
The Soyuz landing and Crew Dragon launch are the second and third flights in a record four-mission sequence over just three weeks to replace the station’s entire seven-member crew after six-month stays in orbit.
It began on April 9 when Soyuz MS-18/64S commander Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrov and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, docking at the station after a two-orbit rendezvous.
They are replacing Soyuz MS-17/63S commander Sergey Ryzhikov, flight engineer Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and NASA’s Kate Rubins, who were launched to the station last October. They planned to undock from the lab complex at 9:34 p.m. EDT Friday, setting up a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan near the town of Dzhezkazgan at 12:56 a.m. Saturday (10:56 a.m. local time).
Russian recovery crews, flight surgeons and NASA support personnel were stationed near the landing site to help the returning station fliers out of the cramped crew compartment as they begin re-adjusting to gravity after 185 days in the weightlessness of space.
After brief on-site medical checks and satellite phone calls home to friends and family, all three will be ferried by helicopter to Karaganda. From there, the two cosmonauts will board a Russian jet for a flight back to Star City near Moscow while Rubins will head home to Houston aboard a NASA aircraft.
With the Soyuz crew safely back on Earth, NASA and SpaceX engineers will press ahead with work to ready the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft for launch Thursday.
The rocket, featuring a previously flown first stage booster and crew capsule, was hauled out to pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center Friday morning. Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japanese crewmate Akihiko Hoshide arrived at the Florida spaceport shortly before 1 p.m.
Engineers plan to test fire the Falcon 9’s first stage engines Saturday and the astronauts are expected to strap in early Sunday for a dress rehearsal countdown. Launch is scheduled for 6:11 a.m. Thursday, setting up a docking at the space station Friday morning.
They will be welcomed aboard by space station commander Shannon Walker and fellow Crew Dragon astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, along with Novitskiy, Dubrov and Vande Hei.
After a weeklong “handover” to help familiarize their replacements with station operations, the Crew-1 astronauts will depart, riding their SpaceX capsule to a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida, around 12:40 p.m. on April 28.
And with that, NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos will have replaced the station’s seven crew members with two launches and two landings in less than one month, a record pace for the space station program.