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Space station trio back on solid ground after five months in orbit

Image: Cassidy and recovery team
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy flashes a thumbs-up sign as he is carried away from the Russian Soyuz craft's landing site in Kazakhstan. Cassidy and his Russian crewmates, Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin, landed early Wednesday local time after spending five months on the International Space Station. Returning space station astronauts are traditionally carried after a Kazakhstan landing, to give them more time to re-adjust to Earth's gravity.

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft has returned an American astronaut and two cosmonauts safely back to Earth, capping a five-month trek to the International Space Station. 

The Soyuz TMA-08M space capsule carrying NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin touched down at 10:58 p.m. ET Tuesday, which was early Wednesday morning at their landing site on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia. 

All three men were in good spirits after spending 166 days in space, NASA spokesman Rob Navias said from the landing site. They landed amid clear, warm weather, despite predictions of rain. [See Soyuz landing photos for the space station crew

It was clear even before the landing that the returning space travelers were happy to come home. "OK, I'm thinking about coffee and apples," one of the Russian crewmates said as the Soyuz streaked back to Earth. 

The cosmonauts weren't the only ones eager to taste the culinary delights of Earth once more. Before leaving the space station, Cassidy told reporters he would be sad to leave the orbiting lab behind, but at the same time he was excited to see his wife and three children. In addition to rejoining his family, "a gooey, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie ranks right on the top of my list," Cassidy told CBS Radio in an interview broadcast on NASA TV. 

Image: Soyuz landing
An aerial photograph shows the Russian Soyuz TMA-08M space capsule firing its retro rockets just as it lands on the steppes of Kazakhstan early Wednesday local time.

Cassidy, Vinogradov and Misurkin were launched to the International Space Station on March 28, becoming the first crew ever to take an "express" one-day flight to the orbiting lab. Their successful flight set the bar for future Soyuz crew launches to the space station. 

The three men formed half of the space station's Expedition 35 and 36 crews, with Vinogradov commanding the latter portion of the mission. They performed several U.S. and Russian spacewalks during the flight. Cassidy even took part in a hastily planned spacewalk to hunt for an ammonia leak in the space station's cooling system in May. 

After landing, Cassidy, Vinogradov and Misurkin will undergo a battery of medical tests to check their health. Cassidy will also participate in extra tests to serve as a baseline for his fellow NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who is slated to go on a one-year space station mission — twice as long as typical station stays — in 2015, NASA officials said. The test will also inform work on potential manned missions to Mars, they added. 

This was the first spaceflight for Misurkin and the second for Cassidy, who ended the trip with a total of 181 days in space for the two flights. It was the third spaceflight for Vinogradov, who flew on a trip to the International Space Station and Russia's Mir station before this trip. He ended the flight with a total of 546 days in space. 

With the safe return of the Soyuz crew, the Expedition 37 mission has officially begun on the space station. The crew includes Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, with Yurchikhin commanding the team. 

Nyberg snapped photos of her Earth-bound comrades as they left the space station. She even posted one image on Twitter, where she has been chronicling her spaceflight under the name @AstroKarenN. "Saying goodbye to Pavel, Chris & Sasha," Nyberg wrote, referring to Misurkin by his nickname. "We'll miss them! Safe journey home." 

Yurchikin, Nyberg and Parmitano arrived at the space station in May. In two weeks, they will be joined three new crewmates — Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins. The station crew is also preparing for the arrival later this month of the first unmanned cargo ship built by the commercial spaceflight company Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Va. The mission is slated to launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., on Sept. 17. 

The $100 billion International Space Station has been continuously manned by astronauts and cosmonauts since 2000. Construction of the orbiting laboratory began in 1998, with five different space agencies representing 15 countries contributing to its assembly. It is the largest artificial structure in space. 

Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com or follow him @tariqjmalik and Google+. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.