NASA, Russian astronauts set records, land back on Earth

International Space Station readying for next NASA space shuttle, Soyez spacecraft

Soyez landing
Bumping back to Earth,  NASA's Jeff Williams and Russian Flight Engineer Max Suraev landed their Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft on the steppes of Kazakhstan Thursday, wrapping up a five-and-a-half-month stay aboard the International Space Station

According to a Space.com report the Soyuz landed on its bottom in nearly 4 feet of snow, and was rolled over and dragged about 20 feet by the winds tugging on its main parachute. 

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Expedition 22 Commander Williams and Suraev spent 167 days onboard the ISS helping receive two US space shuttles and two Russian cargo spaceships.   Williams now has logged 362 total days in space, placing him fourth on the all-time US list of long-duration space travelers. Peggy Whitson, who has spent 377 days in space, tops that list, according to NASA.

Williams set a record that surpasses his own previous record of 83,856 images taken during Expedition 13 in 2006. 

According to NASA, space station crews so far have amassed a total of almost 639,000 images. Those images include photos that document life and work aboard the space station, and photos that document the condition of the home planet from its unique perspective 220 miles above Earth. Their efforts are part of a larger collection that began with Earth observations photos during the Gemini Program of the 1960s. Many of the images are used in scientific research about the Earth, its climate, its resources and the effects humans are having on both. 

The recent space shuttle mission delivered a new observation deck known as the cupola that offers the largest window ever flown on a spacecraft, and the upcoming Discovery shuttle mission to the station will deliver the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF), which will provide a new facility dedicated to multi- and hyper-spectral remote sensing and high resolution Earth observation photography to enhance the use of the best optical-quality window ever flown in space, in the U.S. Destiny Laboratory, NASA said. 

Williams also became the first astronaut to post Twitter updates himself (Astro_Jeff) rather than involving Mission Control to handle the connection.

Meanwhile back on the ISS, the craft is occupied by Expedition 23 Commander Oleg Kotov and Flight Engineers Soichi Noguchi and T.J. Creamer. A trio of Expedition 23 flight engineers -- Alexander Skvortsov, Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Mikhail Kornienko -- will launch from the Baikonour Cosmodrome on April 2 and join the current station crew with a docking on April 4. The space shuttle Discovery is slated for April 5 and it too will dock with the ISS a couple days later. 

Leaders of the ISS agencies from Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia, and the United States met in Tokyo recently to reaffirm the importance of full exploitation of the station's scientific, engineering, utilization, and education potential. 

The group says now that the ISS is mostly complete, the station's crew and its US, European, Japanese and Russian labs will expand the pace of space-based research to unprecedented levels. Nearly 150 experiments are currently under way on the station, and more than 400 experiments have been conducted since research began nine years ago. These experiments already are leading to advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells and the development of more capable engines and materials for use on Earth and in space. 

The ISS now houses a multicultural crew of six and has a mass of almost 800,000 pounds and a habitable volume of more than 12,000 cubic feet - approximately the size of a five-bedroom home, and uses state-of-the-art systems to generate solar electricity, recycle nearly 85% of its water and generate much of own oxygen supply. Nearly 190 astronauts have visited the space station, which is currently supporting its 22nd resident crew. 

The group noted "there are no identified technical constraints to continuing ISS operations beyond the current planning horizon of 2015 to at least 2020, and that the partnership is currently working to certify on-orbit elements through 2028." 

 The heads of ISS agency expressed their interest in continuing ISS operations and utilization.  They acknowledged that a US fiscal year 2011 budget consistent with the US administration's budget request would let the United States support the continuation of ISS operations and utilization activities to at least 2020. They emphasized their intent to reach consensus later this year on the continuation of the ISS to the next decade. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8

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