U.S., Russian Space Station Crew Descends to Earth, Leaving First Canadian in Command

Veteran astronaut Chris Hadfield formally assumed command of the International Space Station late Friday,  the first Canadian to shoulder responsibility for the 15-nation orbiting laboratory, as three U.S. and Russian colleagues departed for a weather-delayed parachute descent into northern Kazakhstan aboard their Soyuz TMA-06M spacecraft.

Previous Expedition 34 station commander Kevin Ford, of NASA, Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin undocked from the space station at 7:43 p.m., EDT, orbiting the Earth in their Soyuz capsule until a 10:13 p.m., EDT,  braking maneuver initiated their descent. Their TMA-06M Soyuz capsule touched down at 11:11 p.m., EDT, or on March 16 at 9:11 a.m., Kazakh time, ending a 144-day flight that established new research milestones for the ISS.

NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, left, and Oleg Novitskiy are assisted by Russian recovery forces moments after touching down in wintry conditions in Kazakhstan late Friday. Russian recovery forces quickly greeted and assisted Ford, Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin from their Soyuz capsule. Photo Credit: NASA TV

Plans for a March 14 descent were postponed by wintry conditions in the northern Kazkh landing zone that prevented staging of Russian helicopters with recovery forces. Conditions improved Friday, though frigid temperatures and a building cloud and fog mass returned, restricting visibility for the recovery teams.

Hadfield, a 53-year-old three flight veteran and retired Canadian Air Force colonel, will remain in charge of Expedition 35 through mid-May, when he descends to Earth with crew mates Tom Marshburn, of NASA, and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko.

Hadfield joins the European Space Agency's Frank De Winne, of Belgium as the only non-American and non-Russian to command the six-person orbiting science laboratory.

"It will be fantastic for the whole program, as a community, to have him as the commander," said Ford, Expedition 34 commander, in a brief ceremony on Wednesday marking the transition of supervision to Hadfield. "He's well deserving of the honor."

The formal transition of command awaited the actual departure of the Soyuz TMA-06M.

"The space station is humming with hundreds of experiments. It's  a very healthy space ship because of the work you all put in," said Hadfield, the new Expedition 35 skipper. "It's a huge honor and privilege not only for me but also for all the the people at the Canadian Space Agency and my entire country."

Ford, Novitskiy and Tarelkin were joined quickly at their landing site northeast of Arkalyk by helicopter-borne Russian recovery forces with NASA flight surgeons. The three men were helped from their capsule and flown by helicopter to Kostanay following post-landing medical checks. Ford was to board a NASA jet for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, while Novitskiy and Tarelkin were flown to their training center at Star City, Russia.

Ford's crew became the station's most prolific at scientific research and technology demonstrations since U.S. segment assembly drew to a close in mid-2011, carrying out, participating in or monitoring 166 experiments in the U.S. segment and another 30 to 35 in the Russian wing. The astronauts pushed the average of 30 to 35 hours per week of science activity to records of 63, 68 and 71 hours as their mission came to an end.

"This shows how the station program is maturing," said NASA's Chris Edelin, who served as lead flight director for Expedition 34. 

"We have gone from a focus on assembly and operation to utilization. We are learning how to more effectively and efficiently operate the station system to free up more time for research."

Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko are scheduled to be joined on March 28 by NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin. Their Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft will be the first crewed vessel  to attempt a same day launch and docking with the space station. Docking is scheduled for 10:31 p.m., EDT, or six hours and four orbits after lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The journey typically spans two days and 34 orbits.

Meanwhile, Hadfield and Marshburn will handle the dispatching of the unpiloted SpaceX Dragon cargo re-supply craft that Ford and Marshburn berthed on March 3. The Dragon departure and Pacific Ocean recovery are set for March 25.

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