WASHINGTON- A three-person crew at the International Space Station boarded a Russian Soyuz rocket Sunday to begin their trip back to Earth, NASA said.
ISS commander, Russia’s Maxim Surayev, his American colleague Reid Wiseman and German Alexander Gerst from the European Space Agency have been onboard the space laboratory for 165 days.
The crew undocked from ISS at 7:31 pm (0031 GMT) and are expected to reach Earth’s surface by 10:58 pm, touching down northeast of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, NASA said.
The three men were pictured smiling and with their arms around each other before hitching the ride back home.
The US space agency said the “departure of Wiseman, Gerst and Surayev marks the end of Expedition 41,” referring to their mission to the ISS to carry out equipment repairs, maintenance and experiments.
Surayev is on his second long ISS mission, while the other two astronauts are on their first trip into space.
Another three-person crew remains aboard the ISS to “continue research and maintenance aboard the station,” NASA said.
NASA Television is airing live coverage of the Soyuz deorbit burn and landing at http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv.
NASA lost its ability to reach the space station when the shuttle program ended in 2011 after 30 years.
The US space agency has helped fund private companies in a push to restore US access to the ISS.
In the meantime, the world’s astronauts must rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to get to the ISS and back, at a cost of $70 million per seat.
There are 15 country participants in the ISS program, though the US and Russia contribute the lion’s share of funds for the project.