New Crew Takes Charge of International Space Station

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New York – The first female commander of the international space station (ISS) handed control of the orbiting laboratory over to a new crew April 17 as she prepared to return to Earth over the weekend.

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson turned the station’s reins over to Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov in a traditional ceremony before her planned April 19 landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

A Russian Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft is scheduled to ferry Whitson, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and bioengineer So-yeon Yi – South Korea’s first astronaut – back to Earth April 19 for their planned 4:30 a.m. EDT landing.

“I’m officially handing over the international space station over to Sergei Volkov, and I’m very happy to do so,” Whitson said during the brief televised ceremony. “We’ve had a really great privilege and honor to be here on the station when so much has changed, and we feel like we’re handing over a very beautiful station to you guys and look forward to your work.”

Whitson passed the 374-day mark in space April 16 to set a new U.S. record for the most cumulative time in orbit.

She is wrapping up the station’s Expedition 16 mission with Malenchenko after six months in space. They launched to the station last October and hosted three visiting NASA shuttle crews that boosted the outpost’s living space by delivering a connecting module, European laboratory and, most recently, a Japanese storage room and Canadian robot.

“Thank you so much for such a pretty station, a beautiful station,” said Volkov, a second-generation cosmonaut in command of the station’s new Expedition 17 crew. “We wish for you a safe trip back home and good luck.”

Volkov and Expedition 17 flight engineer Oleg Kononenko launched to the space station with Yi April 8 and arrived two days later. The third member of their crew, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, already was aboard the station as an Expedition 16 flight engineer.

Yi, 29, is flying a 10-day mission under a $25 million commercial agreement between Russia and South Korea. She will complete a series of experiments and educational outreach activities before departing the station with Whitson and Malenchenko.

“As parting gifts, we have a couple for you … the first one is Garrett,” Whitson told Volkov as the six station astronauts erupted with laughter. “I know he’s going to be a great addition to your crew.”

Reisman arrived at the station in mid-March during a NASA shuttle mission. His replacement is due to arrive in early June.

Whitson also presented Volkov with her leftover supply of hot sauce, which she served as a staple during meals aboard the space station.

“You’re in control now,” she told Volkov. “You have the sauce.”