Two Western astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut have landed in Kazakhstan, safely returning to Earth after their flight back home was delayed for a month by a Russian rocket failure.
Both Russian mission control and Nasa showed a capsule carrying Russian Anton Shkaplerov, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and Terry Virts of the United States landing on schedule in the steppes of Kazakhstan after 199 days in space.
“They have landed!” read a big screen at Russia’s Mission Control outside Moscow. The capsule, charred by extreme heat on re-entry, landed upright, allowing search and recovery teams to expedite the crew’s evacuation.
First Shkaplerov, then Cristoforetti and then Virts were carried and put on semi-reclined chairs a few minutes later for a breath of fresh air under a setting sun.
A smiling Virts showed a “thumbs up” sign as a medical worker checked his pulse and blood pressure. “Everything worked by the second, step by step, the guys were great,” Shkaplerov said.
“It was a textbook homecoming,” a Nasa commentator said.
A spokesman for the Russian mission control said that the Soyuz descent module landed southeast of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan, after detaching from the ISS more than three hours earlier.
“Everything is fine, everything is OK,” he told AFP.
Soyuz commander Shkaplerov expressed hope that “joint work” would continue in the future.
All eyes were trained on the flight back home for the three astronauts after Russia was in May forced to delay their return, as well as the departure of their replacements, after a supply ship crashed back to Earth following a rocket failure.
The trio ended up spending nearly 200 days on the station, with Cristoforetti, 38, breaking the record for the longest single stay by a woman in space.
“So long… and thanks for all the fish!” she wrote on Twitter before starting the journey home, using a quote from Douglas Adams’s cult science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
During her stay on the station, Cristoforetti also became the first astronaut to make espresso in space after a special espresso maker and 15 charges of coffee were delivered to the station.
The next manned mission to the ISS is due to blast off between 23 and 25 July, launching from Kazakhstan with astronauts from Russia, Japan and the US.
Nasa astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Russian Oleg Kononenko and Japan’s Kimiya Yui will join Russia’s Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly of Nasa who are continuing research and maintenance aboard the station.
Kornienko and Kelly are about two and half months into a planned yearlong stay on the station, a first for the 15-nation programme. Nasa is currently interested in accumulating medical data about long-term effects of microgravity in a space station as it lays the groundwork for eventual human missions to Mars.
Virts, 47, who had one previous space shuttle mission before flying to the space station last November, turned over command of the station to Padalka, 56.
Padalka, the first four-time ISS commander, will return to Earth in September after a cumulative total of some 878 days in orbit, more than any other person.
Russia’s space programme was hit by two failures within weeks in May, with the Progress crash followed by the failure of a Proton rocket carrying a Mexican satellite.
The crew’s departure left Russian cosmonauts Padalka and Kornienko and Nasa astronaut Kelly on their own until at least 23 July, when cosmonaut Kononenko, Nasa’s Lindgren and Japan’s Yui are due to launch.