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By Irene Klotz
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
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
(Editing by Grant McCool)