U.S.-Russian crew, millionaire American scientist, prepare to depart space station

U.S. millionaire scientist Gregory Olsen's seven-day sojourn on the international space station is coming to a close as he and a two-man Russian-American crew prepare to head back to Earth in a Russian Soyuz capsule.

The ride down is likely to be an exciting conclusion to Olsen's space station visit _ the third trip by a private citizen to the orbiting laboratory. The Soyuz is to make a beeline home, covering the approximately 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the station to terra firma in just 3 1/2 hours.

The craft is to land on the broad, empty steppes of Kazakhstan, where Russia's manned-space facilities are based, around dawn on Tuesday.

Olsen, American astronaut William McArthur and Russian Valery Tokarev blasted off from the Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan on Oct. 1 and docked with the space station two days later. McArthur and Tokarev are to stay aboard for a six-month mission, while Olsen returns with John Phillips and Sergei Krikalev, who have been on the ISS since April.

The trio entered the Soyuz and closed the hatch at 10:44 p.m. Moscow Time (1844 GMT) Monday to prepare for the trip back to Earth, Russian Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said. After landing, they are to spend two hours undergoing medical checks, then be shuttled by helicopter to a Kazakh staging point and ultimately back to Moscow for further examinations.

McArthur and Tokarev are to conduct two spacewalks during their time aboard, as well as an array of scientific experiments, medical tests and routine maintenance.

The next cargo shipment that McArthur and Tokarev can expect will be a Russian Progress ship, scheduled to reach the station in December.

Olsen, who spent two years in training and paid US$20 million (Ђ16 million) for his trip, has engaged in experiments during his visit, including one to determine how microbes that have built up on the space station are affected by flight, particularly if their rate of mutation has been affected.

In addition, he's taken videos and photos and "enjoy(ed) being here, floating free in space," he told The Associated Press by E-mail last week.

The Soyuz spacecraft and Russia's unmanned Progress cargo ships have been the ISS' lifeline since the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. The shuttle program was suspended for more than two years; the shuttle Discovery flew to the ISS in July, but problems with its insulation raised doubts about when the next shuttle would be put into space.

Russia's space program, despite chronic funding problems, has enjoyed the image of reliability in recent years. But that reputation was tarnished over the past week with a pair of failed unmanned missions,

Russian media reported Monday that the botched launch of a costly, state-of-the-art European satellite, coinciding with Russia's failure to recover an experimental space vehicle after its blastoff, have jeopardized its hopes of earning foreign cash.

The loss of the CryoSat satellite due to the failure of a Russian Rokot booster rocket dealt a major blow to the European Space Agency, which had hoped to conduct a three-year mapping of polar sea ice and provide more reliable data for the study of global warming.

Russia's Khrunichev company, which built the booster, apologized for the loss of the estimated Ђ173 million (US$210 million) CryoSat.

"Moscow's space ambitions have sunk in the Arctic Ocean," the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented, AP reported.

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