Image: Dan Burbank
NASA
NASA astronaut Dan Burbank smiles up at the ground recovery team on Friday after landing along with two Russian colleagues in a Soyuz space capsule. The three men descended from orbit after five and a half months on the International Space Station.
By
updated 4/27/2012 8:45:15 AM ET 2012-04-27T12:45:15

A Russian space capsule touched down on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia Friday, safely returning a joint U.S.-Russian crew to Earth after months aboard the International Space Station.

The Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft landed at 7:45 a.m. ET, less than four hours after undocking from the space station. Riding home aboard the space capsule were NASA astronaut Dan Burbank and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin, who were reintroduced to the strong tug of Earth's gravity after spending 165 days, or nearly five and a half months, in orbit.

Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin launched into space in mid-November. The three men formed half of the space station's six-person crew. Their homecoming brought the outpost's Expedition 30 mission to a close and marked the beginning of Expedition 31.

See more photos of the crew's return to Earth on msnbc.com's Photo Blog.

For Burbank, who commanded the Expedition 30 mission, returning to Earth was bittersweet. He said he loved his time in space but was ready to come home and be with his family again. [Gallery: Space Station's Expedition 30 Mission]

This has been an amazing experience," Burbank said Wednesday during a change-of-command ceremony, shortly before handing control of the orbiting lab over to Expedition 31 cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko.

Burbank also took some time to thank the many people who built the International Space Station, as well as the mission controllers around the world who watch over him and the other denizens of the $100 billion orbiting outpost.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to be a part of that magnificent team, to be a member of this crew and to be commander of ISS Expedition 30," Burbank said.

The station will have a skeleton crew of three for a few weeks. Kononenko, American astronaut Don Pettit and Dutch spaceflier Andre Kuipers will have the huge complex to themselves until May 17, when the three new members of Expedition 31 are due to come aboard.

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However, there should be quite a bit of excitement on the station before those three — NASA's Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin — float through the hatch. The private spaceflight firm SpaceX is due to launch its unmanned Dragon capsule on a demonstration mission to the orbiting lab on May 7 — a first for a commercial spaceship.

The flight is a test run for Dragon and SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, to see if they're ready to begin making bona fide cargo missions to the station. SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion NASA contract to make 12 such robotic supply runs, and the first could come later this year if the upcoming demo is successful.

During the mission, Pettit and Kuipers will use the station's huge robotic arm to snag Dragon and help it berth with the orbiting complex. The Expedition 31 crew will offload about 1,150 pounds (521 kilograms) of supplies, then load the capsule up with a roughly equivalent amount of material for the return journey to Earth.

Pettit spent much of Thursday preparing items slated to head back down with Dragon, NASA officials said.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom  and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Soyuz capsule lands safely in Kazakhstan

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