Space station crew returns to Earth

NASA astronaut Michael Foale gives a thumbs-up sign shortly after Friday's landing in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft near the town of Arkalyk in north-central Kazakhstan.
NASA astronaut Michael Foale gives a thumbs-up sign shortly after Friday's landing in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft near the town of Arkalyk in north-central Kazakhstan.Mikhail Metzel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An American, a Russian and a Dutchman strapped tightly into a space capsule hurtled safely back to Earth on Friday, capping a ride they described as beautiful but tiring.

“It feels like after a good party,” said American astronaut Michael Foale, who spent six months in orbit aboard the international space station with Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri.

The Russian Soyuz TMA-3 capsule that brought them and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands home landed flawlessly in the steppes of Kazakhstan. The bell-shaped descent module landed upright and the astronauts were carried out.

Crews rushed to bundle them in fleece-lined sleeping bags and serve them hot tea to stave off the morning chill.

“It was heavier, or more violent, than I thought. I braced myself, but nevertheless my head went forward — but no wounds,” said Kuipers, returning from a nine-day mission to the station. “But it is a nice feeling if the parachute goes open and, yes, it was a beautiful ride. Everything works fine. It’s great!”

International cooperation
NASA hailed the smooth operation as another sign of American-Russian cooperation more than a year after the U.S. shuttle program was grounded because of the Columbia disaster. Columbia broke up as it re-entered the atmosphere over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts.

Friday’s landing marked the third time an American had come back to Earth aboard the Russian craft, which are filling in for the shuttles.

“It was right on the money — an almost bull’s-eye landing,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said at the landing site near the town of Arkalyk. He said it showed “how integrated the space crews are on both sides of the ocean.”

The landing of the space station’s previous American-Russian crew in October also was smooth — unlike the dramatic landing of the first American in a Russian Soyuz capsule in May 2003, when a computer error sent the crew on a wild descent 250 miles off-course.

New crew in charge in space
Before entering the capsule Thursday night, Foale and Kaleri formally handed control of the station to the new crew, Russian Gennady Padalka and American Michael Fincke, who arrived nine days earlier.

The grounding of the U.S. shuttle fleet has suspended work on the space station, because Russia’s cash-strapped space agency cannot afford more frequent Soyuz flights. And the Soyuz cannot do the job of the spacious shuttle; it is a small vessel with room only for three passengers and 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of cargo.

The main task of the two-man missions currently being sent to the station are to keep the orbital outpost in working order.

“We saw that two men can do a lot,” Foale said, but added: “We are waiting for the resumption of shuttle flights, which might happen in about a year.”

Red-carpet welcome
In Kostanai, a Kazakh town north of Arkalyk, where the Russian search and rescue operation had its headquarters, local officials gave the astronauts a red-carpet welcome and presented them with traditional embroidered Kazakh robes and hats.

Still unsteady on their feet, each astronaut was walked by the arm and sat down on a chair for a news conference before being flown to Star City, Russia’s cosmonaut training center near Moscow.

Asked if he wanted to go back to the space station, Foale said: “Not now.”

“I’m enjoying the nice smell of Earth ... and you are the first people I’m seeing after six months away. It’s nice to be here,” he said in Russian.