HOUSTON — Hours before three International Space Station (ISS) crewmembers descended safely to Earth aboard their Soyuz 26 capsule early Sept. 16, the NASA-led Space Station Control board approved plans to resume launches of the Russian spacecraft on Nov. 14, a schedule that would prevent a temporary interruption in the staffing of the 15-nation orbiting science laboratory.

Crew launches of the Soyuz FG have been on hold since the failed Aug. 24 launch of the Progress 44 supply craft, which was blamed on a premature shutdown of the Soyuz-U booster’s third stage.

A prolonged investigation and recovery threatened to force the partnership to recall the three remaining U.S., Russian and Japanese station crewmembers in late November before replacements could be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz 26 capsule carrying Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev and American Ron Garan settled onto the grassy plains of southern Kazakhstan under parachute on Sept. 16 at 12 a.m. EDT, or 10 a.m. local time. The three men, returning after a 164-day mission, were quickly greeted by helicopter-borne Russian search crews accompanied by U.S. support personnel.

The station crew appeared weary but in good shape as they were extracted from the charred spacecraft within minutes. The Soyuz 26 undocked from the station on Sept. 15 at 8:38 p.m. EDT, followed by the de-orbit burn at 11:05 p.m. EDT.

The descent was made momentarily suspenseful by a drop in communications between the capsule and Russia’s Mission Control. However, an airborne command plane coordinating the recovery crews was in communication with the Soyuz crew.

Borisenko, Samokutyaev and Garan were flown by helicopter to Karaganda. After a brief stopover they were to separate, with the two Russians flying to Star City, Russia. Garan was to board a NASA jet bound for Houston, home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Prior to the undocking, Borisenko transferred command of the station to American Mike Fossum. Fossum, Sergei Volkov and Satoshi Furukawa, who launched June 7, will remain on the orbital outpost until descending to Earth aboard their Soyuz 27 on Nov. 22.

Under the new Control Board schedule, they will be joined by Anatoly Ivanishin, Anton Shkaplerov, both of Russia, and American Dan Burbank on Nov. 16. They will launch two days earlier aboard the Soyuz 28 and transition from the station’s Expedition 29 to Expedition 30 crew.

“Our Russian colleagues have completed an amazing amount of work in a very short time to determine root cause and develop a recovery plan that allows for a safe return to flight,” Mike Suffredini, the NASA ISS program manager, said following the Sept. 15 control board session. “The plan approved today, coupled with the conditions on orbit, allow the partnership to support this priority while ensuring astronauts will continue to live and work on the station uninterrupted.”

The board was briefed on the Russian investigation, which identified a manufacturing flaw in the third-stage propulsion hardware. Some changes in scheduling are possible. But the recovery plan includes an Oct. 30 launch of the Progress 45, which will serve as a test mission.

The strategy includes the tentative Dec. 26 launch of the Soyuz 29 spacecraft with Russian Oleg Kononenko, American Don Pettit and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, who will restore the station to sustained six-person operations for the first time since the Soyuz 26 departure.

The outpost has been staffed continuously since Nov. 2, 2000.