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After being jam-packed with a dozen astronauts last week, the International Space Station will look mighty empty with only a two-man skeleton crew holding down the orbiting outpost for most of December.

Expedition 21 crew aboard the ISS are spending Monday preparing to bid adieu to three of its members. The trio's ticket to Earth aboard a Soyuz spacecraft follows the exit of seven astronauts in NASA's Space Shuttle Atlantis last week.

The mass astro-exodus will leave only Expedition Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Max Suraev to staff the ISS by their lonesomes for three weeks until reinforcements arrive.

They'll be joined December 23 by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA's T.J. Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, launching toward the station three days prior aboard the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft.

NASA said that after working for about seven and a half hours Monday doing regular science and maintenance duties, the present crew of five took a four-hour power nap before making preparations for the upcoming departure. The Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft will undock from the orbiting outpost Monday at 10:56 pm EST (Tuesday 3:56 am GMT) with three aboard. Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko, ESA Flight Engineer Frank DeWinne, and Canadian Space Agency Flight Engineer Bob Thirsk are scheduled to land in Kazakhstan at 2:15 am Tuesday EST, ending a 188-day mission in space (186 days aboard the ISS).

Williams was recently promoted to commander of the space station's Expedition 22 mission after outgoing commander, DeWinn relinquished control on November 24.

Last Friday, Space Shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven safely touched down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ending its 11-day journey to deliver about 30,000 pounds of ISS replacement parts. It also provided astronaut Nicole Stott with a ride back to terra firma after spending 91 days in space. Stott is expected to be the last astronaut ever to be ferried to or from the ISS by Space Shuttle.

NASA's current plans call for the Space Shuttle program to be retired in 2010 after nearly 30 years of service. According to the plans, it will be up to Russia's Soyuz fleet to swap the station's crew. Unless US government budgeting plans force NASA to delay Shuttle retirement while development of the new Orion fleet gets worked out.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, preparations for space shuttle Endeavour and its crew are ramping up for the STS-130 mission targeted for launch February 4, 2010.

Endeavour will deliver the final US space station module, Tranquility in addition to the ESA-built Cupola observatory module that will provide ISS crew with a view of outside robotic operations, docked spacecraft, and one hell of a view of Earth. ®

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