Image: International space station crew
NASA TV
Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, far right, officially hands over command of the international space station to Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov, far left, during a ceremony on Thursday. Other crewmembers include, clockwise from left, Expedition 17 flight engineers Oleg Kononenko, Garrett Reisman, South Korean astronaut So-yeon Yi and Expedition 16 flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko.
By
updated 4/18/2008 11:46:25 PM ET 2008-04-19T03:46:25

Two veteran spacefliers and South Korea's first astronaut said farewell to the crew of the international space station Friday night and prepared to head home.

Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko and South Korean bioengineer So-yeon Yi entered their Russian-built Soyuz TMA-11 in preparation for Saturday's departure from the station. The trio aimed for a 4:30 a.m. ET landing on the central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan.

"I think we're going to be ready to go on Saturday," Whitson told Space.com this week via a video link, adding that she's looking forward to seeing family and friends again in person. "I know I'm not really looking forward to the gravity part down there."

Whitson and Malenchenko are in the homestretch of a busy six months in orbit. During their flight, station astronauts performed five spacewalks and hosted three visiting NASA space shuttle crews that added new international modules, a laboratory and a massive Canadian robot to the space station.

"I really do think that we've made a major to step to make the station more international," Whitson said.

Whitson and Malenchenko turned the station over to its new commander — Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov — and his crew on Thursday.

Volkov, the son of famed cosmonaut Alexander Volkov, is making his first spaceflight and launched April 8 with Yi and flight engineer Oleg Kononenko.

"We were able to talk a lot," Volkov said of his father. "He wished good luck for me, for my crew."

The third member of Volkov's crew, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, was already aboard the station as part of the Expedition 16 team. He will stay on until his replacement arrives in June.

Image: So-yeon Yi
Korea Aerospace Research Institute
South Korea's first astronaut So-yeon Yi is shown with packages of her country's space food inside the Russian segment of the international space station in this image released by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute.
Yi, meanwhile, is completing a 10-day science mission as part of a commercial agreement between the South Korean government and Russia's Federal Space Agency.

"Time flies so fast," Yi told reporters earlier this week. "Actually, now I don't want to go back. I want to fly longer than before."

With Whitson and Yi taking up two of the three seats aboard their Soyuz capsule, Saturday's return marks the first time women have outnumbered men aboard a spacecraft in flight. Malenchenko will command the Soyuz flight back to Earth.

"We were just talking about that," Whitson said, referring to Malenchenko. "I said 'Yuri, this time women out number men on a spacecraft!' ... But he's a great sport about it."

Returning to Earth
Preparations for Saturday's Soyuz landing bega at about 10 p.m. ET, when Whitson, Malenchenko and Yi said goodbye to their Expedition 17 counterparts, shut themselves inside their spacecraft and prepared to cast off from the space station.

The Soyuz was due to undock from an Earth-facing berth on the station's Russian-built Zarya module on Saturday at 1:06 a.m. ET, then fire its rocket engines at 3:40 a.m. ET for about four minutes and 19 seconds in a braking maneuver to begin the descent back to Earth.

Whitson, who set a new record Wednesday for the most days in space by a U.S. astronaut, said she was looking forward to landing aboard a Russian Soyuz. As the station's first female commander, she will have about 377 days in orbit across two space station missions after tomorrow's planned touchdown, though her 2002 launch and landing occurred on a NASA shuttle.

"I think that will be personally satisfying," Whitson said of the Soyuz return. "Another advantage is that once we undock, we'll be home on the ground in a few hours. So I think it will be a quick trip."

This report was updated by msnbc.com.

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