A Russian Soyuz space capsule has landed in Kazakhstan, bringing its crew of two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut safely back from the international space station. The return was the first landing of a manned space vehicle since the disaster that destroyed the American shuttle Columbia in February. Sunday's landing also had its anxious moments.
Controllers at Russian mission control outside Moscow were upbeat after receiving word the Soyuz capsule had landed.
But relief began to turn to anxiety when it became evident that the capsule had landed well off course. It took more than two hours for ground teams to reach the spacecraft, which had touched down nearly 500 kilometers from its intended landing site.
Then anxiety turned back again to relief. The Soyuz was spotted with its hatch open, and NASA astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin were standing outside, waving.
The return flight was the first manned landing since the American space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry in February, killing its seven-person crew. The Columbia tragedy meant that space station crewmembers had to extend their stay by two months.
The Soyuz has long been the primary vehicle used by the Russian space program. For now, it is the only way to carry both humans and cargo to and from the International Space Station.
Adding to the concern was that this particular Soyuz capsule was a new model, never before used for a descent to earth, one of the trickiest and most dangerous parts of any manned space mission.
The Soyuz is much smaller than the American shuttles, so the crew had to leave a lot of equipment behind on the station for the time being.
The Columbia disaster also has led officials to reduce the number of crewmembers on board the space station from three to two.
American Edward Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko arrived at the station last week and are expected to stay for the next six months.