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ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) - Their travel plans changed by the shuttle Columbia disaster, two American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut on the space station finished packing Saturday before cramming into a tiny Soyuz capsule to return to Earth.

The astronauts were supposed to get a shuttle ride back to Florida, but the fleet's grounding after the Columbia's disintegration Feb. 1 means they will touch down in the steppes of Kazakhstan, becoming the first NASA astronauts to land in a foreign spacecraft in a foreign land.

Astronaut Kenneth Bowersox and his crew wrapped up some last-minute packing as their 51/2-month stay neared its end, stuffing the docked Russian capsule for their ride home.

Because the Soyuz is so cramped, Bowersox, astronaut Donald Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin will bring back very little - mainly just a few small personal items, film, water and other environmental samples, and a handful of science experiments.

All their other belongings from 161 days in space were left behind to await home delivery by the next visiting shuttle - whenever that may be. That stash includes Pettit's didgeridoo, an Australian Aboriginal horn he played to entertain his 21/2-year-old twin sons during video conferences.

The undocking is scheduled for about 7 p.m. EDT.

The ending is more tense than usual, not only because of the changes prompted by the Columbia disaster, but because this new Soyuz model has never gone through a descent before. The crew also will make the first re-entry from space since the shuttle accident killed seven astronauts. Russian cosmonauts regularly descend in capsules - most recently in Nov. 10, 2002, when two Russians and a Belgian returned to Earth.

Because of Columbia, "the eyes of the American public and Congress and everyone are going to be on this landing," said Dr. J.D. Polk, a flight surgeon specialized in emergency medicine. "We just don't have any acceptance for any risk right now."

Landing was set for 10:07 p.m. EDT in the steppes 250 miles southwest of Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.

Besides their usual medical kits, Polk and his fellow NASA flight surgeon had a defibrillator, heart monitor, and trauma and resuscitation equipment on hand. In addition, U.S. Air Force doctors and a miniature operating room were deployed for the parachuted spacecraft landing, and some major European hospitals were on alert.

"Even that much medical force is pale compared with we normally have" in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for shuttle landings, Polk said. "It probably is overkill, but you never want to say 'if only' in the spaceflight business."

The Russians, who typically have just a handful of doctors present for a Soyuz landing, have been understanding, Polk said.

Budarin, in a linkup to the station broadcast live on Russian state television Saturday, played down worries about the new Soyuz making its first landing, emphasizing that the differences from the previous model were "only modifications."

"I have made two descents in Soyuzes and there were no problems at all, and I think there won't be any problems this time," he said.

Bowersox, speaking Russian, said the mission aboard the station went well.

"We carried out everything we intended to, but most important is that we worked well together as an international crew," he said.

Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin were supposed to come home almost two months ago, but their return was delayed to give their replacements enough time to arrive aboard another Soyuz.

Astronaut Edward Lu and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko checked in last week for a six-month stay.

The wives of Bowersox and Pettit, along with Pettit's twins, were waiting at Star City, the cosmonaut training headquarters near Moscow. So was Budarin's family.

Jim Newman, an astronaut in charge of NASA's human spaceflight program in Russia, expected Bowersox and Pettit to have a tough time adjusting to the new space reality, as everyone has.

"It's not the space program that we had hoped because of the tragedy," Newman said. "But we're certainly ready for whatever comes."

On the Net: NASA

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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