CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. May 13 The first Japanese to command a space mission and crewmates from the United States and Russia wrapped up a 188-day stay aboard the International Space Station on Tuesday and headed back to Earth.
Returning space station commander Koichi Wakata, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin climbed inside their Russian Soyuz capsule and departed the orbital outpost at 6:36 p.m. EDT/2236 GMT as it flew 260 miles (418 km) over Mongolia.
Touchdown near the town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan was expected at 9:58 pm EDT/0158 GMT Wednesday.
"What an exciting time we shared in this increment," Wakata said during change-of-command ceremony that was broadcast on NASA Television. NASA astronaut Steven Swanson takes control of the station.
Swanson and cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev will manage the station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations, on their own until new crewmates arrive on May 28.
Until Tuesday, the station partnership, headed by the United States and Russia, had been relatively untouched by the rhetoric and the economic sanctions stemming from Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. But the program's protected status shifted after Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's deputy prime minister for space and defense, told news agencies on Tuesday that he would not support a U.S. and European proposal to extend the space station beyond 2020.
Rogozin, who is among 11 Russian officials sanctioned by the United States, also said he would ban the sale of Russian-made rocket engines, which are used to launch U.S. military satellites. United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, use the Russian-made RD-180 engines to power the first stage of its Atlas 5 rockets.
Apparently exempt from Rogozin's ban are Soyuz flight services, currently the only means of transporting crew to the space station following the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles in 2011. NASA pays Russia more than $60 million per person to fly its astronauts on Soyuz capsules and is expected to continue to do so until at least 2017.
NASA is reviewing proposals from at least three U.S. companies to develop a commercial space taxi, with the aim of breaking the Russian monopoly on crew flight services by 2017. The U.S. space agency had no immediate comment in response to Rogozin's announcement. (Editing by Grant McCool)