Image: Station astronauts
Ivan Sekretarev  /  AP
Italian ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori, Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov and NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao clasp hands shortly upon their arrival in the Kazakh town of Arkalyk early Monday.
updated 4/25/2005 1:55:53 PM ET 2005-04-25T17:55:53

A Russian space capsule carrying an American, a Russian and an Italian hurtled safely home to Earth from the international space station Monday, landing softly on the marshy Central Asian steppes in the early-morning darkness.

Search-and-rescue helicopters spotted the capsule floating under a parachute toward its designated arrival site about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the Kazakh town of Arkalyk. The TMA-5 capsule then landed upright in the slush less than 3½ hours after undocking from the orbiting space station, where a new crew stayed behind to prepare to welcome the first NASA space shuttle flight after a two-year hiatus caused by the Columbia disaster.

Russia’s space program has been the only way of getting astronauts to the station since the Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board. NASA immediately suspended all shuttle flights, and the agency said it hopes to resume the flights next month.

“Again our Russian colleagues have shown how flexible they can be in the face of such daunting weather conditions in the landing zone to safely recover the crew,” William Readdy, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, told reporters at Russian Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow.

“We’ll continue our steps as partners to complete the international space station and then move on beyond the Earth’s orbit.”

Waves and grins
American Leroy Chiao, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and Italian Roberto Vittori climbed out of the capsule and were whisked to a mobile hospital for a quick checkup. A seated and smiling Sharipov later wore a tall, white felt hat and mugged for the cameras in his first moments back on Earth.

Hours later, the crew arrived in Moscow, where more thorough examinations were to be conducted at Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside the capital. The exhausted crew members waved and grinned as they tentatively made their way down the plane’s stairs.

A cheering crowd greeted them in Star City and handed the crew bread and salt, the traditional Russian welcome offering. Those on hand to celebrate included the wives of all three men and Vittori’s 5-month-old son, Enrico.

Chiao and Sharipov had been on the orbiting lab since October, while Vittori, a European Space Agency astronaut, spent eight days on the station. Mission Control said Sharipov reported that the crew felt fine.

The crew will undergo extensive medical tests over several weeks, the Itar-Tass news agency said.

Waiting for the shuttle
Those remaining on the station were Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and American astronaut John Phillips, whose six-month mission is slated to include welcoming the next shuttle flight.

“We have spent so much time as an organization and as an agency coming together ... (to) make sure that nothing like that happens again,” NASA spokesman Dean Acosta told Associated Press Television News, referring to the Columbia disaster.

“Again, we are very optimistic that we will be able ... to get the shuttle back where it needs to be — which is up in space.”

Engineers followed the capsule’s journey through space on a map projected on a large screen at Mission Control and periodically communicated with the crew as it sped toward Earth.

The TMA-5 undocked at 10:44 p.m. Moscow time Sunday (2:44 p.m. ET Sunday), after a four-minute delay caused by problems with the hermetic seals on Vittori’s spacesuit, Mission Control officials said. The capsule entered the atmosphere about three hours later, and its parachute opened 15 minutes before the scheduled landing time of 2:07 a.m. Monday Moscow time (6:07 p.m. ET Sunday).

Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said that even after the shuttle resumes flying, Russian Soyuz spacecraft will continue to travel to and from the station about twice a year because they will serve as escape vehicles.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Space capsule lands


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