Space station astronauts on their way home

After six months in orbit in the International Space Station, three astronauts will board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft Tuesday night to return to Earth.

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft will cast off from the International Space Station tonight to ferry three veteran spaceflyers back to Earth after nearly six busy months in orbit.

The Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft is poised to return space station commander Oleg Kotov, a Russian cosmonaut, to Earth alongside two crewmates - one each from the United States and Japan.

"It's time to give up commanding of the station," Kotov said Monday during a change of command ceremony as he turned control of the station over to fellow cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov. "It was really a successful mission for us."

Kotov is returning to Earth with American astronaut Timothy "T.J." Creamer of NASA and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The three men make up half of the space station's full six-person crew and have been living aboard the orbiting laboratory since mid-December.

Their Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft is expected to undock from the station at 8:08 p.m. EDT (0008 Wednesday GMT) and land on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia at 11:27 p.m. EDT (0327 GMT), though it will be early Wednesday morning at the landing site. [Photos: A snowy Soyuz landing.]

During their time on the station, Kotov and his crewmates have hosted three visiting NASA space shuttle missions. Those flights delivered a new NASA room, seven-window observation deck, and vital spare parts and supplies.

The most recent shuttle visit by NASA's Atlantis orbiter in May delivered a new $200 million Russian research module called Rassvet (which means "Dawn" in Russian).

Creamer said that after more than five months on the space station, he's eagerly looking forward to returning to Earth and seeing his friends and family again.

And while Creamer said he will miss the camaraderie of his crew and the view of Earth from space, there are some creature comforts that cannot be recreated in weightlessness.

"Specifically, I'd really like to drink something not from a straw and have food stay on the plate for a change," he said.

With Kotov and his crewmates returning to Earth, Skvortsov is leading the station's Expedition 24 mission.

Skvortsov arrived at the space station in early April with fellow Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson of NASA. The spaceflyers initially joined the Expedition 23 crew and will now remain behind to await the arrival of three new crewmembers slated to launch from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on June 15.

That Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft will launch with veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and American astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker on a new six-month mission that will also space several station expedition crews. will provide complete landing coverage for Kotov and his Expedition 23 crew beginning Tuesday, June 1 at 7:45 p.m. EDT (2345 GMT). Click here for mission updates and a link to NASA's undocking and landing webcast.

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