By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut left the International Space Station on Tuesday, leaving a skeleton crew to maintain the outpost until replacements arrive later this month.
Outgoing station commander Pavel Vinogradov, NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin bid their crewmates good-bye and climbed aboard their Russian Soyuz capsule to prepare for a 3.5-hour flight back to Earth after 166 days in orbit.
"The time has gone by so incredibly fast," Cassidy said during an inflight interview last week.
"It'll be really sad to leave. This is an incredible experience ... but by the same token, I'm ready to go. It's time for some other people to come ... and I'm really excited to go back and see my friends and family."
Before leaving, Vinogradov, a veteran of three spaceflights, transferred command of the $100 billion station, a project of 15 nations, to fellow cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who remains aboard with Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA's Karen Nyberg.
"We had a great environment here, very friendly and very warm," Vinogradov said through a translator in a ceremony on NASA TV on Monday marking the change in command.
Strapped inside their Soyuz capsule, Vinogradov, Cassidy and Misurkin pulled away from the station's Poisk module at 7:35 p.m. EDT/1135 GMT as the two ships sailed 258 miles above Mongolia, said NASA mission commentator Brandi Dean.
Three hours later, the Soyuz hit the top of Earth's atmosphere, giving the men their first sampling of gravity since their launch on March 28.
The final leg of the journey took place under parachutes, with the capsule finally coming to a stop on the steppes of Kazakhstan at 10:58 p.m. EDT/0258 GMT, marking the end of the Expedition 36 mission.
The space station has been continuously staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.
Following medical checks, Vinogradov and Misurkin will be flown to Star City near Moscow. Cassidy will fly on a NASA jet back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
A replacement space station crew, headed by veteran cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and including rookies Sergey Ryazanskiy and Michael Hopkins, is due to launch on September 25.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)