Soyuz Capsule Lands Safely With Space Station Crew

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A Russian Soyuz spacecraft landed March 16 in Kazakhstan, bringing a NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts safely back to Earth after a months-long stay at the international space station.

The Soyuz TMA-01M capsule touched down in Kazakhstan about 80 kilometers north of the town of Arkalyk at about 3:54 a.m. EDT, or just before 2 p.m. local time.

Onboard the Soyuz were the space station’s Expedition 26 commander, Scott Kelly of NASA, and Russian flight engineers Oleg Skripochka and Alexander Kaleri. They landed under harsh conditions, with ankle-deep snow and 30-knot winds reported by recovery crews.

The wind apparently dragged the spacecraft by its parachute nearly 23 meters, according to NASA spokesman Rob Navias.

“You would think that it was a scene out of the North Pole,” Navias said, calling it “viciously cold” at one point. “It was a bull’s-eye landing under very harsh conditions.”

The Soyuz TMA-01M carrying Kelly, Kaleri and Skripochka launched toward the space station in October and marked the first flight of the updated Soyuz space capsule design.

During the crew’s Expedition 26 mission, the space station saw the arrival of cargo ships from Japan, Europe and Russia. The crew also performed two spacewalks to upgrade the space station.

Earlier this month, NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery also visited the space station during its final mission before being retired. The shuttle delivered a new storage room and a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2, which station astronauts will test for use on future spaceflights.

Station astronauts unpacked Robonaut 2 March 15 before the Soyuz TMA-01M departed the orbiting laboratory.

The returning trio of spacefliers spent 159 days in space during their space station mission. They left behind three other station crewmembers, who will now serve as the station’s Expedition 27 crew.

The Soyuz undocked from the station at 12:24 a.m. EDT as the two spacecraft flew 347 kilometers above China. After two tests to check the vehicle’s docking and landing systems, the Soyuz began the trip home.

“Goodbye, U.S. segment of the space station,” Kelly said as the Soyuz pulled away. “We shall meet again.”

Kelly is the twin brother of fellow NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, who is set to command the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final mission to the space station next month. Mark Kelly is the husband of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering after being shot in the head during a Jan. 8 attack in Tucson that injured 13 people and killed six others.

Scott Kelly has said that he hopes to help his sister-in-law with her recovery when he returns home to Houston.

With the successful landing, Kaleri entered the record books as the second- most-flown-in-space human in history. The 159 days in space he spent with the Expedition 26 mission increased his total spaceflight time to 770 days over five spaceflights, placing him second behind Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev (803 days over six spaceflights).

The mission marked the third spaceflight for Kelly, who now has 180 days of spaceflight experience. It was the first space mission for Skripochka.

That next Soyuz launch was slated to blast off March 29, but has been delayed to no earlier than April due to technical issues. Roscosmos spokesman Alexander Vorobyev said prelaunch testing revealed a glitch in the Soyuz’s on-board communications system, according to a March 14 report by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. The problem, he said, was traced to a faulty capacitor.