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NASA teams deploy to Kazakhstan for Soyuz landing

Posted: March 7, 2014

As diplomatic tensions flare over Russia's armed incursion into Ukraine, preparations for Monday's landing of two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut continue unabated as recovery crews converge on the Kazakhstan touchdown zone.

Expedition 38 crew members pose for an in-flight crew portrait in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station. Pictured on the front row are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov (center), commander; NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins (left) and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, both flight engineers. Pictured on the back row (from the left) are Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, all flight engineers. Photo credit: NASA
Nearly two dozen NASA officials and medical personnel are on the way to Kazakhstan to greet the three-man crew, led by veteran Russian commander Oleg Kotov, a native of the Crimea region at the center of a standoff between Russian forces and the Ukrainian government.

The NASA team joins the Russian-led recovery crew, which consists of a fleet of helicopters, fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, and all-terrain ground vehicles to quickly reach the Soyuz capsule after it parachutes to Earth.

Speaking in a conference call with reporters this week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the space station program has been resilient to international crises since Russian formally joined the effort in 1993.

"I think people lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises," Bolden said. "I don't think it's an insignificant fact that we are starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It's not trivial."

Kotov will be accompanied by Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins, who are in the final weekend of a 166-day mission aboard the International Space Station.

Carrying Russian and U.S. recovery teams, Russian helicopters are seen over Kazakhstan in this file photo from a previous Soyuz landing campaign. Photo credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi
The trio launched Sept. 25 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and arrived at the 450-ton orbiting outpost six hours later.

Part of the space station's Expedition 37 and 38 crews, Kotov, Ryazanskiy and Hopkins presided over the arrivals and departures of Russian Progress resupply ships, Japanese and European cargo freighters, and two commercial logistics missions flown by Orbital Sciences Corp.

Kotov and Ryazanskiy teamed up for three spacewalks, including a Nov. 9 excursion with the Olympic torch in a high-flying photo opportunity ahead of Russia's Sochi games.

Hopkins logged two spacewalks with NASA astronaut Richard Mastracchio in December to replace a balky ammonia coolant pump on the space station's truss backbone.

In the last few days, the three-man crew completed fit checks with their Sokol re-entry spacesuits and a descent drill to practice procedures for the Soyuz spacecraft's undocking and landing.

Kotov and Ryazanskiy also tested the Soyuz spacecraft's motion control and navigation systems Friday.

File photo of a Soyuz landing. Photo credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi
The crew will enter their Soyuz TMA-10M capsule again Monday and close hatches between the spacecraft and the space station's Poisk module around 2045 GMT (4:45 p.m. EDT).

Undocking is set for 0002 GMT Tuesday (8:02 p.m. EDT), followed by a burn of the Soyuz rocket thrusters at 0230 GMT (10:30 p.m. EDT) to slow the craft's velocity enough to fall back into the atmosphere.

The spacecraft's propulsion and orbital habitation modules will jettison from the landing section, where the three-man crew will be positioned for re-entry, at 0258 GMT (10:58 p.m. EDT).

Touchdown southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan is scheduled for 0324 GMT (11:24 p.m. EDT), or 9:24 a.m. Tuesday at the landing site.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata will take over command of the space station from Kotov, becoming the first Japanese astronaut to lead a crew aboard the complex.

Wakata, Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, set for return to Earth in mid-May, will be joined by three fresh residents March 25 to boost the station's crew complement back to six.

Veteran shuttle astronaut Steven Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev will begin another six-month rotation on the space station.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.