March 16, 2013 at 12:03 AM ET
By Miriam Kramer
A Soyuz spacecraft has safely landed on the frigid steppes of Kazakhstan, returning an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts to Earth after a nearly five-month mission on the International Space Station.
The Soyuz space capsule touched down at about 11:11 p.m. ET Friday, which was early Saturday at the landing site. The spacecraft brought NASA astronaut Kevin Ford and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin home after 142 days in space. The trio was greeted by freezing temperatures after exiting the spacecraft.
"They've landed. Expedition 34 is back on Earth," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during live commentary.
Originally, the international crew was to leave the orbiting laboratory on Thursday, but freezing rain and foggy weather on the ground prevented them from returning home. Weather conditions improved on Friday, leading to a smooth undocking; however, a bank of clouds hampered visibility in the landing zone, complicating the Russian search and recovery team's task.
During their stay aboard the station, the three spacefliers orbited the Earth 2,304 times, traveling nearly 61 million miles (98,169,984 kilometers). This was Novitskiy and Tarelkin's first trip to space, and the second for Ford. [See photos from Expedition 34 space mission]
The three crew members were on board to see the docking of the unmanned Dragon capsule — owned and operated by private spaceflight firm SpaceX — at the beginning of March. A month before, the crew participated in the docking and undocking of a Russian Progress supply capsule.
Ford, Novitskiy and Tarelkin leave three other crew members on board the space station. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn said their goodbyes to the departing trio earlier in the day. Ford passed the commander's role to Hadfield, putting a Canadian in charge of the station for the first time.
Hadfield, Romanenko and Marshburn will not be the sole residents of the station for long. Cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov, Alexander Misurkin and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy are expected to arrive at the station on March 28. If all goes as planned, it will mark the first time a Soyuz capsule has delivered a station crew to the International Space Station in one day. Russia's Federal Space Agency tested the one-day flight profile during unmanned Progress cargo ship deliveries to the space station.
NASA has relied on Russia's Soyuz capsules to transport astronauts to and from low Earth orbit since the retirement of the agency's shuttle program in 2011. In the future, NASA officials plan to use on privately built spacecraft to carry people and cargo to and from the space station.
The $100 billion laboratory was built by space agencies representing Japan, Canada, Europe, the United States and Russia. International crews of astronauts have occupied the station continuously since 2000.
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