ESA astronaut André Kuipers prepares to leave ISS
Today, after eleven days in space, of which nine on board the International Space Station, André Kuipers is preparing to return to Earth. He is expected to land in the northern part of the Kazakh Steppe at 02:11 CEST (00:11 UT) tonight.
Gennadi Padalka and Mike Fincke, who flew up together with Kuipers, will remain on board the Station for the next six months. After saying his farewells, Kuipers will descend to Earth, together with the Expedition Nine crew. They will return in the Soyuz TMA-3 capsule, which was docked to the Station by ESA astronaut Pedro Duque in October 2003. Thus completing the exchange of the Station's permanent crew, but also the compulsory six-monthly replacement of the Soyuz capsule.
The hatches between the Station and the Soyuz will be closed at around 23:00 CEST (19:00 UT). Kuipers and his fellow TMA-3 crewmates will put on their Sokol spacesuits and start the undocking procedure. Gradually the Soyuz will move away from the Space Station, until reaching a distance of 19 kilometres.
At this point, two-and-a-half hours after undocking, the Soyuz engines burn for precisely 261 seconds. The capsule slows down and automatically starts the descent towards Earth. With two hundred kilometres to go, the spacecraft splits into three parts. The service module, and the orbital module are burned in the Earth's atmosphere, whilst the re-entry module uses its heat shield to make a safe return.
Kuipers will be very busy for the last hour of the return flight. As Flight Engineer he must monitor the various manoeuvres, which are performed by automatic pilot, making sure that everything runs smoothly. He will be in permanent radio contact with the Russian Mission Control Centre, TsUP, in Moscow.
The ESA astronaut has trained intensively for this stage of the re-entry procedure during his training in Star City. What's more, he has regularly practiced emergency landings in the Soyuz simulator and the large centrifuge. Thanks to his training, Kuipers is even able to land the Soyuz capsule if necessary.
According to ESA astronaut Pedro Duque though, the training at Star City cannot prepare astronauts for one last event: the moment that the capsule hits the ground. "You really come down hard. Just before the impact a light goes on and there is an alarm to signal that you need brace yourself. The new landing system with the retro-engines does soften the impact a little, so does the shape and suspension of the chair. But it remains a tense moment. You don't quite know when it is going to happen."
Straight after the landing an antenna on the Soyuz capsule ensure that a rescue crew swiftly arrives at the landing site. Kuipers will receive a medical check-up at the landing site and he will be able to answer a few questions. Next he will be taken to Astana by helicopter, from there he will be flow back to Star City by airplane. In Star City he will live in quarantine for the next two weeks. On 15 May, Kuipers will return to The Netherlands for the first time since his flight.