Expedition 33 has concluded in triumphant style with the safe return to Earth of NASA astronaut Suni Williams, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Japanese spacefarer Aki Hoshide. The trio—who touched down on the steppe of Kazakhstan at 7:56 pm CST on Sunday (7:56 am local time on Monday), close to the remote town of Arkalyk—had spent 127 days in orbit, of which 125 were aboard the International Space Station. During their tenure, they supported dozens of scientific experiments, oversaw the arrival and departure of several cargo craft, and participated in four spacewalks to restore the capabilities and prepare for the future expansion of the colossal orbital outpost. Cocooned within the descent module of their Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft, and with Malenchenko in command for the return journey, the three space travellers touched down in darkness, becoming the first crew to do so since Soyuz TMA-7 in April 2006.
With their return to terra firma, the station is presently occupied by the first half of Expedition 34: NASA astronaut Kevin Ford in command, joined by Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeni Tarelkin. Williams officially handed over the baton to Ford in an emotional change-of-command ceremony, broadcast yesterday by NASA TV. Backdropped by Hoshide, Novitsky, Tarelkin, and Malenchenko, she appeared to choke away tears as she told her audience that “we’ve left this ship in good shape and I’m honoured to hand it over to Kevin”. She then offered her successor, retired Air Force Colonel Ford, a light-hearted jab of inter-service rivalry. “Although he’s an Air Force guy,” said Navy Captain Williams, “we have to make him a little more Navy, because this is a ship!”
And without further ado, she offered gifts to her three friends who will run the station for the next four weeks as Expedition 34, ahead of the arrival of Canada’s Chris Hadfield, Russia’s Roman Romanenko, and NASA’s Tom Marshburn on 21 December. To Ford she gave a red, white, and blue Navy pennant “which flies over Navy ships when the commander is on-board,” to Tarelkin a doll to join a similar one from his daughter, and to Novitsky (“our very own Magnum P.I.”) a Hawaiian shirt.
The opening seconds of Ford’s reply were lost when the astronauts accidentally switched off the microphone, but this issue was swiftly corrected and the man at the helm of Expedition 34 paid his own tribute to Williams and her crew. “Three weeks is a pretty short handover,” he admitted, “and between Oleg, Yevgeni, and I, altogether we have about three months total time in space, so far. If you combine the time of Suni, Aki, and Yuri, they have three years of total time living in space, so they had a lot to offer us. They were really good about sharing it.” The official acceptance of command came with a handshake and a hug for Williams and applause from their teammates.
Although Williams was responsible for the overall conduct of Expedition 33, and headed the station crew since mid-September, the man charged with commanding Soyuz TMA-05M for the return to Earth was Malenchenko, who wrapped up his fifth space mission and secured a grand total of 641 days—almost 22 months—of his life off the planet. He now stands as the seventh most experienced spacefarer of all time. Williams herself eclipsed the accomplishment of former Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson by amassing a career total of more than 50 EVA hours, making her the world’s most experienced female spacewalker, although she remains in second place behind Whitson for most space-time by a woman.
As for Hoshide, he became only the third of his countrymen to venture outside in a space suit, participating in three EVAs with Williams: two in the August-September timeframe to remove and replace a failed (and balky) Main Bus Switching Unit on the S-0 truss and a third on 1 November to attend to an ammonia coolant leak from the station’s P-6 solar array. In doing so, Hoshide became Japan’s most experienced spacewalker, surpassing Soichi Noguchi by just over an hour with a total of 21 hours and 23 minutes. Not to be outdone, Malenchenko performed an EVA from the station’s Russian Segment with Expedition 32 crewmate Gennadi Padalka in mid-August.
Under Malenchenko’s deft command, Soyuz TMA-05M separated on time from the ‘nadir’ (Earth-facing) Rassvet mini-research module at 4:26 pm CST on Sunday (4:26 am Kazakh time on Monday) to commence the three-and-a-half-hour return to Earth. It was just before local orbital sunrise. Three minutes later, the Soyuz thrusters were ignited for 15 seconds in the first of two separation ‘burns’ to withdraw from the vicinity of the multi-national outpost. At the projected landing site—to the north-east of Arkalyk and about 350 miles west of the Kazakh capital, Astana—heavy snowfall was prevalent and overnight temperatures on the steppe were predicted to dip as low as -15 degrees Celsius.
The five-minute de-orbit burn commenced at 6:59 pm CST and positioned the Soyuz perfectly for ‘entry interface’ with the upper reaches of the atmosphere. At 7:27 pm, the orbital and instrument modules were pyrotechnically jettisoned, leaving the beehive-shaped descent module and its three human passengers alone to endure the fireball of re-entry. Seven minutes later, Entry Interface was confirmed at an altitude of 400,000 feet and controllers noted an expected loss of signal from the rapidly descending spacecraft.
Less than an hour after the de-orbit burn, the first images from ground forces revealed the deployment of Soyuz TMA-05M’s drogue chute at 7:39 pm, followed by the enormous canopy of the main chute…although a five-second delay in deployment produced a landing about 20 miles off-target. Seven minutes ahead of touchdown, a flotilla of eight search and rescue helicopters—bearing Russian, US, and Japanese medical personnel and all-weather terrain vehicles—arrived at the ‘new’ primary recovery zone. The spacecraft continued to descend, vanishing from view in a thick layer of cloud as it approached the ground. Moments before touchdown, solid-fuelled retrorockets in the descent module’s base ignited to cushion the impact and Soyuz TMA-05M and Williams, Malenchenko, and Hoshide were safely home at 7:56 pm CST on 18 November.
It was 7:56 am on Monday, November 19 in Kazakhstan, three minutes later than scheduled, and the landing site was still swathed in darkness. The spacecraft came to rest on its side and was later raised to the vertical by the recovery forces. Local sunrise would not come for almost three-quarters of an hour, until 8:37 am. As the first finger-like glimmers of daybreak illuminated the eerie, blue-tinged snow, photographs revealed the three spacefarers to be apparently healthy and in fine spirits as they were swaddled in warm clothing and blankets. It has been reported that they endured ‘normal’ deceleration loads which peaked at 4.3 G during re-entry.
Breathing the fresh air of Earth for the first time in more than four months, Williams, Malenchenko, and Hoshide were quickly helicoptered away for medical examinations and a return to their home bases and a reunion with their families. Malenchenko returned to Star City, on the outskirts of Moscow, whilst his former crewmates were expected to board a NASA Gulfstream III aircraft for the journey back to Ellington Field in Houston. Williams and Hoshide’s return flight is expected to entail two refuelling stops in Glasgow, Scotland, and Goose Bay, Canada.