AFP – Three astronauts returned safely to Earth from the International Space Station early Saturday, aboard a Russian capsule which landed on the freezing Kazakhstan steppe, mission control said.
“There is landing!” flashed a Russian mission control centre message transmitted by NASA. Rescue teams rushed to recover the capsule carrying NASA US astronaut Kevin Ford and Russian flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin.
“The crew felt normal through the descent and landing, their mood is good,” Russian agencies quoted the Russian mission control official commentator.
It was the first space mission for Russian astronauts, and the second for astronaut Kevin Ford, who was captain of the crew.
Russia’s space agency Roscosmos confirmed the landing time as 0305GMT. “The landing was completed as planned,” it said in a statement. “The crew is feeling good. In the coming hours, they will be transported to a permanent location for post-flight rehabilitation.”
Saturday’s landing had been delayed by a day due to poor weather conditions, but rescue helicopters still had to brace for thick ground fog and clouds which descended on the landing area and drastically reduced visibility.
The Soyuz vessel landed upright and four workers were shown prying the hatch open to extract the three men. They pulled the crew members out of the capsule and helped them down a special slide to the ground they had not touched since October.
Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin pumped his fists as he sat on the edge of the capsule. The smiling men were then bundled up by the Russian rescue workers and sat recovering in special chairs.
They were carried to a helicopter within minutes and out of the subzero temperatures, because no medical tent was brought to the location by the skeleton evacuation crew that braved nearly zero visibility, the NASA commentator said in footage broadcasted online by NASA-TV.
The Soyuz TMA-06M Russian spacecraft had separated from the ISS on schedule and entered the earth atmosphere at about 0240GMT.
“Just closed the hatch on the departing crew. The echo rang through the Station in many ways, we are now 3 onboard this huge ship. So cool,” wrote on Twitter Chris Hadfield, a Canadian Astronaut who is now captain of the remaining ISS crewmembers; NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko.
The current crew will remain in space until May. They expect to be joined by Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin and NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy, who will be sent into space late this month.
Since 2009 there have been teams of six astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the space station, whose capacity was previously limited to only three people.
Soyuz spacecraft, used since 1967 and, are currently the only way to ferry astronauts to the ISS after the US retired its iconic space shuttle programme in 2011.
Russia has suffered several recent setbacks in its space program, notably losing expensive satellites and an unmanned supply ship to the ISS last year, but the manned missions have been flawless.