NEW YORK — A Russian Soyuz space capsule made a rare nighttime landing in the frigid steppes of Kazakhstan Nov. 19, returning three astronauts to Earth after a four-month visit to the international space station.
A timing glitch forced the capsule to overshoot its intended landing site by a few kilometers, but it made an otherwise smooth touchdown at 7:56 a.m. local time — one hour before sunrise, NASA officials said. Because of time zone differences it was still Nov. 18 at NASA’s space station Mission Control center in Houston.
“The crew is home,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during landing commentary.
Returning home on the Soyuz were NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. The trio spent 127 days in space during their mission.
It was the first time in six years that a Soyuz spacecraft has landed at night, and only the fourth time in the 12-year history of Soyuz flights to the space station, Navias said. Some of the Soyuz’s landing activities occurred a few seconds late, causing it to overshoot its landing site, but Russian recovery teams were able to compensate for the change during the descent, he added.
Weather at the landing site was overcast and freezing, with temperatures of minus 11 degrees Celsius, though it felt like minus 17 degrees Celsius with the wind, Navias said. The Soyuz capsule landed on its side, a common configuration, and recovery teams worked quickly to retrieve the astronauts due to the cold weather.
Williams and her crew wore broad smiles after being extracted from their capsule. They sat in reclining seats under thick blankets to stay warm in the frigid cold before being moved to an inflatable medical tent for post-landing checks.
Williams, Malenchenko and Hoshide launched into orbit in mid-July, with Williams becoming the second female commander of the station when she took charge earlier this year. Williams, an avid runner, ran the first triathlon in space during the mission, which also featured three spacewalks and the first official cargo delivery by an unmanned Dragon spacecraft built by Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif.
Williams, who commanded the station’s Expedition 33 mission, turned control of the outpost over to NASA astronaut Kevin Ford Nov. 17. The command change marked the start of the station’s Expedition 34 mission by Ford and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin, who arrived at the station in late October.
Ford and his crew were able to watch a live video feed of NASA’s coverage of the Soyuz landing. A camera on the space station’s exterior also captured a dramatic view of the Soyuz capsule’s super-hot plasma trail as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
The Expedition 32-33 mission marked the second spaceflight for Williams, who ended the expedition with 322 total days in space during her spaceflight career. That makes her the second-most-experienced female astronaut in history, behind NASA’s Peggy Whitson, who spent 377 days in space during two station flights.
The mission also was the second spaceflight for Hoshide, who ended the flight with 141 days in space during two missions.
Malenchenko completed his fifth spaceflight during the Expedition 32-33 mission and ended the flight with a career total of 646 days in space, placing him seventh in the ranks of most experienced spacefliers.
While Williams and her crew readapt to life on Earth, the Expedition 34 crew still on the space station will prepare for a busy holiday season in orbit. The astronaut and cosmonauts are expected to celebrate the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday Nov. 22 and prepare for the arrival of three new crew members in mid-December.
A Russian Soyuz rocket carrying NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko will launch to the space station Dec. 19 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The international space station is the largest manmade structure in space. It was built by five different space agencies representing the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, with construction beginning in 1998. The $100 billion space station has been continuously occupied by a series of rotating astronaut crews since 2000.