Astronauts from Canada and Belgium and a Russian cosmonaut landed safely on the Kazakhstan steppes on Tuesday following a six-month stint on the International Space Station.
The Russian Soyuz TMA-15 capsule carrying Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, and Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne touched down without a hitch near the town of Arkalyk in Kazakhstan's barren north, Russian Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said.
Parachutes slowed the craft to an easy touchdown at 10:15 a.m. Moscow time (2:15 a.m. ET), as scheduled.
Russian medical teams arrived in all-terrain vehicles to help the crew out of the capsule, in a carefully choreographed recovery operation.
"The landing was very soft; we were lucky not to have any wind," Romanenko said in televised remarks after leaving the capsule. "Everything went quite nicely; there were no problems whatsoever."
"It was my first flight, and it was quite interesting to see all the systems functioning and the parachute being activated," he said.
The three crew members were later driven to Arkalyk, located about 50 miles southwest of the landing site. They are to be flown to Moscow later in the day.
A NASA doctor at the site of the landing reported that the three astronauts appeared to be doing very well after spending 188 days in space and their return to Earth, according to a NASA Webcast.
The trio blasted off to the International Space Station on May 27. Their arrival marked the doubling of the station's permanent crew to six people.
With the mission, all five of the international partner agencies — NASA, Russia's Roscosmos, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency — were represented in orbit together for the first time, helping burnish the station's international credentials.
The expedition was also a milestone for the Canadian space program, marking the first time a Canadian has taken part in a long-term mission.
Canadian Space Agency president Steve MacLean, who spoke at a briefing at Russian Mission Control, hailed it as a "turning point" and thanked the crew for "superb work that was done on orbit."
NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian Maxim Surayev remain on the station. They are to be joined later this month by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA's Timothy J. Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi of Japan.
The first space station crew arrived in 2000, two years after the first part was launched. Until the May launch, no more than three people lived up there at a time. The space outpost has since expanded to accommodate a permanent crew of six.
With the U.S. shuttle fleet set to be grounded soon, NASA and other international partners will have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft alone to ferry their astronauts to the space station and back.