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Soyuz Crew Returns to Earth - 2004-04-30

A three-man crew returned to earth Friday from the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz capsule that touched down in Kazakhstan. The three men are from the United States, Russia and the Netherlands.

The Soyuz capsule landed right on schedule on the plains of Kazakhstan in the target area.

Recovery teams quickly converged on the site to assist the three men after the bell-shaped descent module landed on its side.

American astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri spent six months aboard the space station.

Astronaut Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands returned to earth after a nine-day mission, and all three men were found to be in good health.

There were no complications arising from a small helium gas leak in the capsule's fuel pressurization system.

Russian space agency officials detected the leak earlier this week, but said it was minor and would not affect the landing.

This was the third time an American had returned in a Soyuz craft, which remains the only link between earth and the orbiting station since the Columbia shuttle disaster in February last year.

Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board, and the NASA agency says shuttles will not likely fly again until sometime next spring.

Up to 40 helicopters and airplanes were ready to help with the recovery effort, if necessary.

Another Soyuz landed far off target last May after it made what Russian officials call a ballistic descent at a much steeper angle, and it took recovery teams two hours to locate the capsule and crew.

An American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut remain on the ISS for a scheduled six-months stay.