Image: Donald Pettit carried by Russian space agency rescue team
Mikhail Metzel  /  AFP - Getty Images
Russian space agency rescue team members carry U.S. astronaut Donald Pettit,center, shortly after the landing of the Russian Soyuz TMA-03M space capsule on Sunday.
By
updated 7/1/2012 10:18:57 AM ET 2012-07-01T14:18:57

After half a year living on the International Space Station, three astronauts safely returned to Earth on Sunday aboard a Russian-built space capsule.

The Soyuz spacecraft landed in the Central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan at 4:14 a.m. ET, returning NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers to their home planet.

"Everything is good, we feel great," Kononenko radioed Russia's Mission Control Center just before landing.

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The spacefliers undocked from the space station several hours earlier in their Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft to begin the journey home. They landed upright under a blue sky dotted with some white clouds in Kazakhstan, where the local time was Sunday afternoon. Live video tracked the Soyuz's descent at the end of its parachute, right down to the ground.

Veterans return from frontier
Pettit, Kononenko and Kuipers arrived at the orbiting outpost in December 2011. All three had flown previous missions to the space station, making them a crew of veteran spacefliers.

In a blog post describing his final day in space, Pettit reflected on the impact of his months-long mission, and encouraged humanity to keep pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

"On Earth, the frontiers opened slowly," Pettit wrote. "The technology of sailing was known and advanced for over a thousand years before the Earth was circumnavigated. Such bold acts require the technology, the will, and the audacity to explore. Sometimes you have one, but not the others. I only hope that my small efforts here, perhaps adding one grain of sand to the beach of knowledge, will help enable a generation of people in the future to call space 'home.'" [Landing Photos: Soyuz Capsule Returns 3 Astronauts Home]

Throughout their mission, Pettit and Kuipers shared stunning photos of Earth from space with the public through Twitter and the Flickr photo-sharing site. Pettit also regularly updated his blog with accounts of his experiences on the space station, including several poems in tribute to life in space.

Pettit kept a journal as a fun way to document his scientific activities on the orbiting outpost. For instance, Pettit wrote blog updates using the persona of a zucchini plant when he experimented with growing different kinds of plants in microgravity.

On Friday, Pettit wrote a poem called "Last Day in Space," touching upon his memories of the mission, the experiences that moved him, and his anticipation over seeing his wife and children again soon.

Milestone mission
Pettit, Kononenko and Kuipers made up half of the station's Expedition 31 crew. During their stay at the orbiting laboratory, the spacefliers rolled out the welcome mat for the first commercial spacecraft to visit the station.

SpaceX's unmanned Dragon capsule was launched to the International Space Station on a test flight to demonstrate the spacecraft's ability to carry cargo to and from low-Earth orbit. As Dragon approached the station, Pettit and Kuipers used the outpost's robotic arm to pluck it from space and manually park it to the complex.

Image: The Soyuz TMA-03M capsule lands
Sergey Remezov  /  AFP - Getty Images
The Soyuz TMA-03M capsule lands near the town of Dzhezkazgan on July 1, 2012.

The successful test flight lays the groundwork for NASA to use commercial spaceships to ferry cargo — and one day, astronauts — to the space station. SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion contract with the agency for 12 unmanned cargo delivery flights.

Kononenko served as commander of Expedition 31 during his stay, but passed the torch to fellow Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka during a change-of-command ceremony Saturday.

The departure of Pettit, Kononenko and Kuipers leaves only three residents occupying the space station until three new crewmembers launch to the complex on July 14. Padalka, NASA astronaut Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Revin will remain aboard the orbiting outpost until September.

Russian space station flight controllers radioed Padalka and his Expedition 32 crew after Sunday's landing to let the spacefliers know their comrades were back on Earth and in good health.

"Good to hear," Padalka radioed back. "Another mission completed."

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com. Follow Denise Chow on Twitter  @denisechow, or Space.com  @Spacedotcom. We're also on  Facebook and  Google+.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

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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