By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla (Reuters) - A NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts climbed into a Russian Soyuz capsule on Wednesday and left the International Space Station, wrapping up nearly six months in orbit, a NASA Television broadcast showed.
Outgoing NASA station commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and flight engineers Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova, with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, sealed themselves into the Soyuz capsule shortly after 3:30 p.m. EDT, the same spaceship that carried them into orbit on Sept. 25.
Three hours later, the Soyuz pulled away from its berthing port, aiming for a parachute landing in Kazakhstan at 10:07 p.m. EDT.
"Soft landing guys. We're going to miss you," station commander Terry Virts radioed to his departing crewmates.
Virts, who took over command of the station from Wilmore on Tuesday, remains aboard with cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. They are due home mid-May.
Wilmore partnered with Virts for a trio of spacewalks between Feb. 21 and March 1 to prepare parking spots for two new commercial space taxis hired by NASA to begin ferrying crewmembers to and from the station in 2017.
NASA expects future crews to make four more spacewalks before the end of the year to install new docking ports and other equipment for the new spaceships.
Wilmore and Samokutyaev are completing their second spaceflights. Serova is making her first spaceflight and is the first Russian woman to serve on the station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations.
With the arrival of the next crew, NASA and Russia will be doubling the mission durations, in an attempt to learn more about how the human body responds to even longer stays in space.
NASA astronaut Mark Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko are due to spend a year aboard the station, which flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth. They are slated to launch, along with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, on March 27 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)