The two American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut who returned from space during the weekend say they are glad to be back on earth after spending nearly six months on the International Space Station. They also say it still is not clear why their Russian Soyuz spacecraft landed nearly 500 kilometers off target in Kazakhstan.
The three men looked somewhat fatigued but also relaxed as they talked with reporters about their space mission, which ended Sunday.
All three, American astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, said they were always confident of arriving home safely, despite the off-target landing. Their craft landed about 500 kilometers from its intended touchdown site.
The three men had to wait more than two hours as rescue planes and helicopters searched the isolated steppes of Kazakhstan for their Soyuz capsule.
Although space officials in Russia and the United States were anxious until the men were finally located, Mr. Pettit said he and his crew mates were not all that upset.
"We had been prepared that the landing site was going to be a bit of a mob scene, with lots of people and hustle and bustle and everything," he said. "And I was actually relieved to ooze out of the spacecraft and lay on mother earth and just have a solitude moment in which to get reacquainted."
For reasons that still are not clear, the Soyuz reentered the earth's atmosphere at a much steeper angle than planned, something known as a ballistic landing.
An investigation is now under way to determine exactly why this happened.
But the crewmembers say there was nothing they recall doing that resulted in the steeper trajectory.
The three are now undergoing medical tests and extensive debriefing about their overall mission, which had to be extended by two months after the destruction of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia in February.
Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crewmembers.
Astronaut Bowersox said the Columbia tragedy hit those on the space station especially hard, and that the grieving process continues even now.
"Up in space, for me my emotions are more powerful. If I am happy, I am happier, if I am sadder, I am sadder," said Mr. Bowersox. "And so when I thought about my friends it could almost stop me from working, and I would put that aside and continue with the tasks that we had. And now as we are returning we have to go through that, and we're confronted more directly with it, we are confronted with people who live with it more closely, and we are going to have to go through the whole thing again I think."
For now, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft are the only means of heading to and from the space station because NASA grounded its shuttles after the Columbia tragedy.
The space station has two crew members who arrived last week, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and American astronaut Edward Lu.