This story was updated at 12:42 a.m., Nov. 26.
Two NASA astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut safely returned to Earth tonight after a five-month-long stay at the International Space Station.
Americans Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker, and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, landed in their Russian Soyuz TMA-19 space capsule on the central steppes of Kazakhstan on Nov. 25 at 11:46 p.m. EST (0446 GMT on Nov. 26).
The spaceflyers appeared to be in excellent spirits, and were all smiles as they were extracted from the Soyuz. Yurchikhin was first to be helped out of the capsule, followed by Walker and then Wheelock.
Russian search and recovery forces presented Walker with a bouquet of flowers after she was removed from the spacecraft. While being tended to by recovery teams, Wheelock held up a sign that said Hi Mom, and smiled broadly for the cameras.
Wheelock, Walker and Yurchikhin wrapped up the five-month mission at the International Space Station, where they completed scientific experiments and performed general maintenance activities for the orbiting laboratory. Wheelock even executed three emergency spacewalks with his crewmate, Tracy Caldwell Dyson (who returned to Earth on Sept. 25), to fix one of the station's vital cooling pumps after it malfunctioned in mid-August. Walker and Yurchikhin assisted in the repair efforts from inside the station.
The trio launched to the space station on a Soyuz rocket on June 15. While living aboard the orbiting outpost, Wheelock actively engaged in social media, using Twitter to post stunning pictures taken from 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Earth.
"We're always looking for ways to bring the views that we see out the window, and the things that we're experiencing in the way of science onboard the station and the experience we have inside back to Earth so folks can enjoy them," Wheelock said in an in-flight interview. "It's been a real thrill to be able to do that." [ Gallery: Space Station Windows on the World ]
After months in space, however, returning to Earth will have its perks.
"I'm just really looking forward to the simple things," Wheelock said. "Probably the biggest thing I'm looking forward to is hot, running water taking a shower. I haven't had a shower since June, so I'm looking forward to that. And really looking forward to feeling a breeze against my face, just smelling the Earth and all the vegetation, and experiencing the feel of the Earth again."
Still, Wheelock was quick to reflect on the lasting impact of a long-duration stay in space.
"It really makes you feel quite insignificant in the whole scheme of things, but really makes you turn inward to define yourself and your purpose," Wheelock said.
After landing, the returning spaceflyers will be retrieved by a recovery team and flown to Kustanai, Kazakhstan. From there, Yurchikhin will return to Russia's Federal Space Agency headquarters in Moscow, while Wheelock and Walker journey back to NASA's astronaut headquarters at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The Soyuz landing, originally planned for Nov. 30, was moved up a few days to avoid conflicting with the start of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit, which is being held in Astana, Kazakhstan, Dec. 1 and Dec. 2. The meeting will attract heads of state from around the world to discuss international security issues.
With their departure, Wheelock, Walker and Yurchikhin left behind their fellow station crewmembers: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka and Alexander Kaleri. The space station will be home to only three people until mid-December, when NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman, European astronaut Paolo Nespoli and Russian cosmonaut Dmitri Kondratyev arrive to round out the outpost's Expedition 26 crew.
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