Record-setting astronauts head home

Sunday, June 16, 2002

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.-- Space shuttle Endeavour undocked from the international space station on Saturday and headed home with three men whose half-year stay set an American endurance record.

Onufrienko, Walz and Daniel Bursch are due back on Earth on Monday, on what will be the 194th day of their mission. They've already put in an order for pizza and cannot wait to be reunited with their wives and children.

The three men made sure they were inside the space shuttle when the hatches between the spacecraft swung shut Saturday morning.

Two hours later, Endeavour pulled away, ending a weeklong visit to pick up one space station crew and drop off another, and to fix the orbiting outpost's arthritic robot arm. The parting occurred 250 miles above Kazakhstan.

Space station astronaut Peggy Whitson rang the ship's bell and announced in the tradition of the high seas: "Expedition Four, departing. Endeavour, departing."

"Smooth sailing to you and your crew," replied Bursch, whose own crew was the fourth to inhabit the orbiting outpost.

Bursch, Walz and Onufrienko moved into space station Alpha on Dec. 7, two days after their launch, and moved out as soon as Endeavour arrived with their replacements on June 7. The two American astronauts, both military officers, went on to shatter the U.S. space endurance record of 188 days.

The 194-day mission will be a personal record for Onufrienko, a Russian Air Force colonel whose 1996 mission aboard his country's Mir space station lasted just one day less. A fellow cosmonaut holds the world space endurance record: 438 days.

As it circled in a holding pattern, Endeavour beamed down stunning views of the space station against a backdrop of cotton ball-like clouds, the sparkling Pacific and the Colombian coast.

"You've got a really nice-looking home there," Mission Control told the three space station occupants.

"Thanks. We think so, too," replied Whitson.

Whitson, a biochemist, is only the second woman to live aboard the space station. Her roommates are Valery Korzun, a former Mir resident, and Sergei Treschev, like Whitson a first-time space flier.

Whitson spoke for all three as Endeavour flew away and disappeared into the darkness. "Thanks for the ride," she radioed.

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