Record-breaking US astronaut heads back to Earth

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla, Sept 2 (Reuters) - NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson left the International Space Station on Saturday, wrapping up a career-total 665 days in orbit, a U.S. record, as she and two crewmates headed for a parachute landing in Kazakhstan.

Whitson, 57, ends an extended stay of more than nine months aboard the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

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Astronaut Neil Armstrong
A portrait of Neil Armstrong aboard the Lunar Module Eagle on the lunar surface just after the first moon walk. (Photo by � Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Model of the Gemini 8 spacecraft.
View of astronaut's footprint in lunar soil. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin were launched to the moon on July 16, 1969.
(Original Caption) Apollo 11 Spacecraft Commander, Neil Armstrong, suited up in preparation for a practice at the Space Center, of lunar activities, April 1969. Apollo 11 is scheduled for launch July 16th in the first U.S. space mission to land two astronauts on the surface of the moon.
Bob Hope and Astronaut Neil Armstrong perform for members of the 25th Infantry Division in December, 1969. Cu Chi, Vietnam. (Photo by � CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Former astronaut Neil Armstrong responds to a question as committee chairman William Rogers looks on, as they testify before the House and Technology Committee.
From left to right, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, Jr. pose for a portrait in their space suits in front of a backdrop showing the Moon. The three astronauts have been named as the prime crew of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. May 1969. | Location: Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas, USA. (Photo by � CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Neil Armstrong in the cockpit of the command module on Apollo 11, on his way to the Moon. | Location: aboard Apollo 11, between Earth and the Moon. (Photo by � Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Apollo 11 Spacecraft Commander Neil Armstrong in the spacesuit as he will appear on the lunar surface. A camera is attached to his chest area giving him full use of his arms, the backpack gives oxygen, pressurization and temperature control. The Apollo 11 Lunar Landing mission is scheduled for launch July 16th.
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong talks about the launch of Apollo 11 on the 30th anniversary of the event at the Kennedy Space Center July 16. [Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins flew aboard the craft. ]Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon.
Former astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, testifies before the House Science and Technology committee hearing on Review of the Proposed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Human Space Flight Plan, on Capitol Hill in Washington May 26, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCI TECH POLITICS)
Crew members of the Apollo 11 stand as they meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington July 20, 2009. The members are Buzz Aldrin (L), Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong (R). REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES POLITICS)
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong (L), Michael Collins and Elrin Aldrin smile through the window of the mobile quarantine van in this NASA handout image dated July 24, 1969. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong is suited for a training exercise at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston in this April 18, 1969 handout photo courtesy of NASA. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are seen during a trip to Sierra Blanca, New Mexico in this February 24, 1969 handout photo courtesy of NASA. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Neil Armstrong greets friends after being released from quarantine in this August 10, 1969 handout photo courtesy of NASA. Deke Slayton is in the doorway behind Armstrong. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Neil Armstrong poses with an X-15 aircraft at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California, in this undated handout photo courtesy of NASA. Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, has died at the age of 82, his family said on Saturday. The former astronaut underwent a heart-bypass surgery earlier this month, just two days after his birthday on Aug. 5, to relieve blocked coronary arteries. REUTERS/NASA Dryden Flight Research Center/Handout (UNITED STATES)
Photos for a public memorial service for U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong are pictured at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio August 29, 2012. Armstrong, who took a giant leap for mankind when he became the first person to walk on the moon, has died at the age of 82, his family said on Saturday. REUTERS/Matt Sullivan (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY OBITUARY PROFILE)
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"I feel great,” the biochemist said during an inflight interview on Monday. “I love working up here. It’s one of the most gratifying jobs I’ve ever had.”

During her third mission aboard the station Whitson spent much of her time on experiments, including studies of cancerous lung tissue and bone cells. She also completed four spacewalks, adding to her six previous outings, to set a record for the most time spent spacewalking by a woman.

Two crewmates who launched with Whitson in November returned to Earth three months ago. She stayed aboard to fill a vacancy after Russia scaled down its station staff from three to two cosmonauts.

Whitson returns to Earth with Jack Fischer, also with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who arrived in June. The crew’s Russian Soyuz capsule was expected to make a parachute touchdown in Kazakhstan at 9:22 p.m. EDT Saturday (0122 GMT Sunday).

"I’m looking forward to seeing friends and family,” Whitson said during another interview. “But the thing I’ve been thinking about the most, kind of been fantasizing about a little bit, are foods that I want to make, vegetables that I want to sauté, things that I’ve missed up here.”

In April, Whitson broke the 534-day U.S. record for cumulative time in space. Only seven Russian men have logged more time, including Gennady Padalka, the world record-holder with 878 days in orbit.

Whitson, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, said she was inspired by the U.S. Apollo program that landed men on the moon and she was selected as an astronaut in 1996. She was the first woman to command the space station and also the first woman and first non-pilot to serve as chief of the NASA Astronaut Corps.

“I am working on paying forward some of the advice and mentoring that I received on my journey, in hopes that one day those young people will do the same and look back on a life in which they leapt at the opportunities and broke their own records," she said. (Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Bill Trott)

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