Image: Farewell to space station
NASA TV
Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne say their goodbyes before leaving the International Space Station on Monday.
By
updated 12/1/2009 12:13:34 AM ET 2009-12-01T05:13:34

The International Space Station, which was crowded last week with 12 astronauts onboard, has dwindled down to a crew of two.

Seven astronauts departed the station Nov. 25 on the space shuttle Atlantis, and three more station residents undocked from the orbital outpost on Monday to land their Russian Soyuz spacecraft at 2:16 a.m. ET Tuesday in Kazakhstan.

The remaining crew of two — NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev — was left to handle the space laboratory themselves for about three weeks.

"Jeff once told me that this will be the best time," Suraev said during an in-flight news conference last week. "Right now we have so many people onboard, so I haven't had the chance to be onboard with just two crewmembers. What we're planning to do is just the regular work, our regular activities."

The two spacefliers will each have more daily maintenance jobs than they do when the normal crew of six long-term residents is at the station. Though they may have to cut down on the amount of science research they can accomplish, Williams and Suraev should be able to handle the workload, NASA said.

"We won't overload the crew with a lot of tasks," said Dan Hartman, manager of space station integration and operations. "We feel very comfortable going into it."

In fact, Williams is an old hand at serving on small crews: He was one of two astronauts working on the space station during Expedition 13 in 2003, when shuttle flights were put on hold following the tragic Columbia accident.

"I spent three months as part of a crew of two with Pavel [Vinogradov], and we had a great time," Williams told Space.com. "The loneliness was not an issue. There's so much contact with the ground ... that it's not an issue."

Williams was recently promoted to commander of the space station's Expedition 22 mission after the outgoing commander, Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne, relinquished control during a change-of-command ceremony Nov. 24.

"You've set the bar very high for me but also for those that follow us," Williams told De Winne, the first station commander to represent the European Space Agency.

The Soyuz's return to Earth marks the end of a six-month space voyage for De Winne as well as Expedition 21 flight engineers Bob Thirsk of Canada and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko. All three have spent 186 days on the station, overseeing the addition of a new science porch on the station, the arrival of the first Japanese unmanned cargo ship, and three visiting shuttle flights.

Williams and Suraev are due to be joined by three more crewmembers — Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and NASA astronaut Timothy Creamer — arriving on a Soyuz spacecraft Dec. 23.

This report was updated by msnbc.com.

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