NEW YORK — After spending nearly six months aboard the international space station, three spacefliers returned home to Earth Nov. 21 aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.
NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov departed from the space station and landed on the frigid, windy Central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan at 9:26 p.m. EST.
After months in orbit, the crew had a homecoming featuring wintery conditions, with harsh winds, below-freezing temperatures and a layer of snow cover at the landing site. When it touched down, the Soyuz capsule landed on its side, which is not uncommon in windy conditions, NASA officials said, but otherwise, it was a smooth and successful landing.
Shortly after the landing, a recovery team quickly removed the crew members from the Soyuz capsule. The spacefliers were all smiles as they were carried from their spacecraft into reclining chairs to readjust to Earth’s gravity. After posing for some photos, Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov were whisked away for initial medical tests.
Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov undocked from the orbiting complex in their Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft from the Rassvet module on the station’s Russian segment earlier that evening. The two spacecraft physically separated from one another at about 6 p.m. EST as they flew over the Chinese-Mongolian border.
Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov arrived at the orbiting outpost in early June. In an in-flight media interview during their last week on the station, Fossum described how quickly the time passed for him in space.
“The time has gone by in a flash,” Fossum said. “The calendar says five-and-a-half months. To me, it seems more like five-and-a-half weeks. If you ask my wife, it’s probably more like five-and-a-half years.”
Fossum is a veteran of two previous space shuttle flights, but this was his first long-duration mission aboard the international space station. “I’ve dreamed about living and working on a space station since I was a kid, so this is a dream come true for me,” Fossum said. “This has been great. I’d be more than happy to stay here a bit longer.”
Over the course of three spaceflights, Fossum has now logged 194 days in space. Volkov, who has completed two long-duration stints aboard the space station, has spent 366 days in orbit. Furukawa, who completed his first spaceflight, logged 167 days in space.
Fossum was commander of the space station’s Expedition 29 mission. Before returning home, he passed the post on to NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, who will act as commander of the new Expedition 30 for the duration of his stay.
“It was very poignant and very rewarding to watch our friends and colleagues, and teachers these last couple of days, get on their way to their families and home,” Burbank radioed to Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston shortly after the undocking. “I guess we’ll have to wait a couple of months before we have the chance to see them again.”
Burbank arrived at the station Nov. 16 with Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin. The trio will live and work aboard the orbiting laboratory until March.
Prior to his departure, Fossum gave Burbank some advice for his time in orbit.
“My advice for Dan is, enjoy every bit of every day,” Fossum said. “Any time you think that you’re getting a little bit frustrated, get a grip, because you’re in the most amazing place imaginable, working in the world’s premier laboratory in orbit 240 miles above the Earth. This is an amazing place. What a great experience it is — every bit of it.”
Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov are the last space station crew members to have been present at the station during a visiting space shuttle mission. The spacefliers played host to the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis during its STS-135 mission — the last flight of the space shuttle fleet. The agency retired its 30-year shuttle program immediately following Atlantis’ STS-135 mission in July.
“Expedition 29 has been a very interesting time,” Fossum said in a ceremony on Nov. 20 to hand command of the station to Burbank. “We were here to be part of the historic, last space shuttle mission. It was then our task to transition from a focus on assembly operations to full scientific utilization.”