Three station fliers prepare for "once-in-a-lifetime ride" home after 204-day stay in orbit

By William Harwood

/ CBS News

A Russian cosmonaut, his Canadian co-pilot and a NASA flight engineer finished packing their Soyuz spacecraft for departure from the International Space Station Monday night, targeting a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan to close out an action-packed 204-day mission.

With commander Oleg Kononenko at the controls, flanked on the left by Canadian David Saint-Jacques and on the right by veteran Army helicopter pilot Anne McClain, the Soyuz MS-11/57S spacecraft is scheduled to undock from the station's upper Poisk module at 7:25 p.m. EDT Monday, setting up landing three hours and 22 minutes later.

The returning Soyuz MS-11 crew (left to right): NASA astronaut Anne McClain, spacecraft commander Oleg Kononenko and Canadian flight engineer David Saint-Jacques. NASA

For McClain, completing her first space flight, departing the station and leaving three crewmates behind — Expedition 60 commander Alexey Ovchinin, NASA flight engineer Nick Hague and Christina Koch — will be bittersweet.

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"It's such a special place to live," she said in a June 19 interview with CBS News. "We're not up here visiting space, we're up here living in space. One of my colleagues said it best the other day, you know, if you told me I was born here and everything on Earth was just a dream, I might almost start believing you. Because we are so at home up here. That is something so special."

She added: "I think if I could have my friends and family visit, I might just stay forever."

During a change-of-command ceremony Sunday, Kononenko presented a symbolic key to the space station to Ovchinin, saying "I would like to wish you all the best." Ovchinin replied with best wishes of his own for a "nominal descent and soft landing."

After backing a safe distance away, Kononenko and his crewmates plan to monitor a four-minute 40-second deorbit rocket firing, starting at 9:55 p.m., designed to slow the ship by about 286 mph, just enough to drop the far side of the orbit deep into the atmosphere.

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After a change-of-command ceremony Sunday, the station crew shared a zero-gravity group hug, slowly spinning together in the Destiny laboratory module. NASA

Just before plunging back into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of about 62 miles, the three modules making up the Soyuz spacecraft will separate. The upper orbit module and the lower propulsion and power section will burn up in the atmosphere while the central crew module orients itself heat-shield forward to continue the entry.

Six minutes later, the crew cabin will exit the region of maximum heating from atmospheric friction and deploy its parachutes to slow from a velocity of about 515 mph to a much more sedate 16 mph or so.

Finally, an instant before touchdown southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan, six solid-propellant rocket motors will fire slow the ship to walking pace, just 3.4 mph. Landing is expected at 10:47 p.m. EDT (8:47 a.m. local time), closing out a mission spanning 203 days 15 hours and 16 minutes. That translates into 264 orbits and 86.4 million miles traveled since launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Dec. 3.

By all accounts, landing in a Soyuz is an E-ticket ride with the jostling of module separation, more than four Gs of deceleration during maximum heating and finally, the jarring rocket-assisted touchdown.

"The Soyuz ride home, we have heard lots about it, somewhere between (riding in) a washing machine and a roller coaster, three-and-a-half hours of the most exciting ride that we'll probably have in our life," McClain said. "Definitely looking forward to a once-in-a-lifetime ride."

With touchdown, Kononenko's time in space over four space flights will total 737 days. McClain and Saint-Jacques will have logged 204 days in orbit during their first space flight. During their stay aboard the station, the crew welcomed six visiting vehicles — three cargo ships, a SpaceX Crew Dragon test vehicle, a Russian Progress and a Soyuz — and helped with their departures.

crew2.jpg
The Expedition 59 crew aboard the International Space Station (left to right): Christina Koch, David Saint-Jacques, Oleg Kononenko, Alexey Ovchinin, Anne McClain and Nick Hague. NASA

In addition, Kononenko carried out two spacewalks, pushing his total to five, McClain conducted another two and Saint-Jacques one.

Russian recovery crews were stationed near the landing site to help the crew out of the cramped Soyuz descent module, carrying them to nearby recliners for initial medical checks as they begin re-adjusting to gravity after more than six-and-a-half months of weightlessness.

After satellite phone calls to friends and family, along with more thorough medical tests and checks in a nearby inflatable tent, Kononenko, Saint-Jacques and McClain will be flown by helicopter to Karaganda. From there, McClain and Saint-Jacques will head back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston aboard a NASA jet while Kononenko is flown home to Star City near Moscow.

With the departure of Kononenko and company, the Expedition 60 crew of Ovchinin, Hague and Koch will have the station to themselves until July 20 — the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — when the Soyuz MS-13/59S spacecraft takes off from Baikonur carrying Alexander Skvortsov, NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan and Italian veteran Luca Parmitano.

On Aug. 22, the expanded six-member crew will welcome an unpiloted Soyuz — MS-14/60S — to the lab complex for a 10-day stay. The spacecraft will be the first launched atop an upgraded Soyuz 2.1a booster after several flights carrying Progress cargo ships. Assuming the rocket performs as expected, the Soyuz 2.1a booster is expected to begin operational Soyuz flights next year.

On Sept. 25, another Soyuz — MS-15/61S — will carry station veteran Oleg Skripochka to the outpost, along with NASA's Jessica Meir and Hazzaa Ali Almansoori, a guest cosmonaut representing United Arab Emirates. That will be the final planned flight of the older Soyuz FG booster and the final planned use of Yuri Gagarin's launch pad at Baikonur.

mcclain-haircut.jpg
Anne McClain gives Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques a haircut aboard the International Space Station. NASA

Almansoori will return to Earth on Oct. 3 after a 10-day stay aboard the station, riding home with Ovchinin and Hague. Koch, who rode into space with Ovchinin and Hague in March, is remaining in orbit for an extended mission, returning to Earth on Feb. 6 with Skvortsov and Parmitano.

At touchdown, Koch will have logged 328 days aloft — a single-flight record for a U.S. female — just 12 days shy of the U.S. single flight record of 340 days set by Scott Kelly.

"I like to think that a record isn't how many days you spend up here, it's what you do with each of those days," she told CBS News. "So when you look at it that way, it actually isn't a daunting thing, it's a privilege to be a part of. It's a reminder to me to bring my best to every day I have here."

She said she hopes her record is "exceeded as soon as possible after my time, because that means we're continuing to push the barriers."

Koch will take Morgan's seat for her ride home aboard the Soyuz MS-13/59S spacecraft, along with Skvortsov and Parmitano. Morgan remains aloft for an extended mission of his own, joining Skripochka and Meir for the trip back to Earth April 1 aboard the Soyuz MS-15/61S vehicle. His flight will total 256 days.

First published on June 24, 2019 / 9:52 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

William Harwood

Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."

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