The U.S. and Russian crew of the International Space Station has returned safely to Earth. They touched down in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, together with a short-term Spanish visitor to the station.
After six months in orbit, astronaut Ed Lu and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko left a successor team behind and landed as planned with Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque in the freezing, barren steppes of Kazakhstan. Mr. Duque had flown up with the new crew on a Soyuz last week to conduct experiments for the European Space Agency.
U.S. space agency spokesman Rob Navias was at the landing site when the crewmen emerged. "All three crewmembers have been extracted from the capsule, the Russian search and recovery forces wasting little time in getting the crew out," he reported. "They are bundled up in very, very warm fur coats as they sit in their launch and entry suits and reclining chairs. Ed Lu is smiling and waving. He's in great shape, as is Yuri Malenchenko and Pedro Duque; big smiles on their faces after this on-target landing this morning here in the central steppes."
The successful touchdown was in sharp contrast to the drama that the previous station crew went through in May. That Soyuz arrived nearly 500 kilometers off target, causing alarm among Russian and U.S. space officials when they could not locate the crew for more than two hours.
A Russian investigation found that the cause was a malfunctioning Soyuz guidance system, causing a steeper descent than planned. Engineers made minor adjustments to prevent a recurrence of the problem in other Soyuz vehicles, but they could not modify this one because it was attached to the space station.
As a result, U.S. and Russian space officials prepared for another possible off-course landing. Extra search and rescue teams were on standby this time at different probable landing locations. The crew was also outfitted with a satellite telephone and global positioning equipment to alert rescuers to their location if necessary.
The Soyuz is now the main ferry craft for space station crews because U.S. shuttles are grounded for at least another year after the loss of the orbiter Columbia in February.
The returned station crew now faces several weeks of physical rehabilitation to rebuild muscle and bone lost in their long period floating in weightlessness.
First, however, they get to greet their families when they return to the cosmonaut training center in Star City, Russia.
The encounter will have special meaning for Yuri Malenchenko. He got married in orbit by long distance ceremony. But the lead U.S. flight surgeon for the crew, Tom Marshburn, said the honeymoon is still some weeks off because there are constraints on what returning crewmembers are allowed to do.
"The Russians engage much like we do in a very slow progression, a controlled progression, from control of where the crewmembers stay and whom they see," he explained. "It's not until about one to two months later that crewmembers can typically leave and go to a place you would think of more in line with a honeymoon."
Back on the space station, astronaut Michael Foale and cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri are in the second week of their six-month tour of duty. They are essentially caretakers for an outpost that cannot be expanded until shuttles, with their huge cargo capacity, return to flight.