CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With a bell marking their departure, two Americans and one Russian set out for home Monday aboard space shuttle Discovery, leaving behind the space station where they had lived for more than five months.
"It's time to say goodbye, station, and good luck, new crew," said Yuri Usachev, who is returning to Earth after a stint as commander of the international space station.
Astronaut Susan Helms said leaving was the low point of her space station mission.
"I think I've been in denial about this whole departure thing and I wasn't really quite ready to go because I've enjoyed the tour so much," Helms said in an interview with Associated Press. "As we were looking at it get smaller and smaller in the window, I think at least a couple of us felt a feeling of sadness that the whole adventure had come to an end."
Discovery undocked from the space station as they soared more than 250 miles above the southern Pacific. As it slowly backed away, the space station's new commander, Frank Culbertson, a retired Navy captain, rang his ship's bell several times in the tradition of the high seas.
"Thanks a lot guys, see you later . . . and have a wonderful landing," Culbertson called out. He bid goodbye in Russian to Usachev, Helms and their crew mate, Jim Voss.
Discovery is due back at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday afternoon. The touchdown will end a 167-day mission for Usachev, Voss and Helms, who took off aboard Discovery on March 8 and became the space station's second resident crew. The shuttle returned for them more than a week ago and dropped off their successors.
Culbertson, Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin will spend the next four months aboard the space station, taking delivery of a Russian docking compartment in September, a new Russian lifeboat in October and at least two Russian supply ships.
Unlike the previous expedition, which enjoyed frequent shuttle visits and even entertained a paying tourist, Culbertson and his crew will not see another space shuttle until Endeavour arrives in December to bring them home. Their only visitors will be the two Russian cosmonauts and one French astronaut who will drop off the Soyuz lifeboat.
The mission by Usachev, Voss and Helms is NASA's second-longest ever, but pales in comparison with the Russian experience.
The U.S. space endurance record remains Shannon Lucid's 188-day Mir mission in 1996, and the world record remains Russian Valery Polyakov's 438-day Mir mission in 1994 and 1995.