ARKALYK, Kazakhstan – The Soyuz (search) spacecraft carrying a U.S.-Russian crew pulled away from the international space station early Sunday, ending a six-month mission in orbit and starting a fast journey back to Earth.
If all goes as planned, the bell-shaped Soyuz TMA-4 should make two orbits of the Earth before thumping down beneath a parachute at 8:38 p.m. EDT in Kazakhstan's (search) barren steppe, where American and Russian officials waiting with helicopters will be watching for the first sign of the craft as it races through the morning sky.
Mission Control outside Moscow said there were strong winds at the targeted landing site, 55 miles north of the Kazakh town of Arkalyk, but the Soyuz was not expected to be blown off course.
Before entering the Soyuz and starting final preparation for departure, Russian Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka (search) wished the newly arrived crew of Salizhan Sharipov of Russia and Leroy Chiao of the United States good luck.
"I wish you a fortunate mission. We'll meet you back on earth," Padalka said.
"We'll be home soon," Padalka's American partner, Mike Fincke, said in Russian.
After entering the Soyuz, the departing crew donned their bulky spacesuits and checked the capsule's systems.
Padalka and Fincke had been in space since April. Strapped in alongside them was Cosmonaut Yuri Shargin, who had spent eight days on the space station. Shargin arrived Oct. 16 along with the station's new crew.
The crew's last day in space was spent saying goodbye to their replacements and catching up on sleep ahead of the 31/2 hour ride back to Earth.
The non-reusable Soyuz has become the linchpin of the global community's manned space program. It's the only way to get to and from the station since the grounding of the U.S. shuttle fleet after Columbia burned up on re-entry in February 2003.
The non-reusable Soyuz is the workhorse of Russia's cash-strapped space program, and it boasts a stellar safety record.
Usually the landing goes as planned. But there have been some minor glitches.
In May 2003, the first time that American astronauts returned on the Soyuz, a computer malfunction sent the crew on a dive so steep that the astronauts' tongues rolled back in their mouths. The crew landed so far off-target that more than two hours passed before rescuers knew the men were safe.
Now the Soyuz is outfitted with satellite phones and a global positioning satellite system. Russia also requests that the ex-Soviet republic of Kazakhstan close a large area of its airspace before the landing, which is monitored from Moscow's Mission Control.
After landing, the crew is usually given a quick medical checkup in a tent erected on the often windy steppe before beginning a journey back to Moscow's Star City, the home-base of Russia's space program.
While in space, Padalka and Fincke made four space walks, including one crucial mission to repair a gyroscope that orientates the station in space. "We are very glad that we leave the station to other spacemen in good condition," Padalka was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
On the eve of their return home, the spacemen were allowed a few extra hours of sleep to conserve energy for their trip, said Valery Lyndin, spokesman for Moscow's Mission Control, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
While the return is speedy, the preflight buildup begins hours earlier as the crew prepares the Soyuz and dons their bulky space suits.
NASA has said that its shuttles should be flying again by early summer.