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Space station trio brings Olympic torch back down to Earth

Image: Yurchikhin and torch
Soyuz commander Fyodor Yurchikhin grins as he holds an Olympic torch after landing with two other spacefliers from the International Space Station in Kazakhstan on Monday. The torch will play a role in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.Shamil Zhumatov / EPA

A Russian Soyuz space capsule landed safely on the steppes of Kazakhstan, returning three spacefliers to Earth along with one other precious item: the Olympic torch.

The Soyuz spacecraft landed at 8:49 a.m. local time Monday (9:49 p.m. ET Sunday) under a clear blue sky in central Kazakhstan. Frigid temperatures greeted the returning space travelers — Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano — after five and a half months in space.

"The initial reports indicate a bull's eye landing for the Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft and its crew," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during the space agency's televised landing commentary. [See more landing day photos for Soyuz crew]

Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano flew up to the International Space Station in late May and formed part of the outpost's six-person Expedition 37 crew, which Yurchikhin commanded. Before departing the station Sunday, Yurchikhin handed command of the station over to fellow cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, who now leads the station's Expedition 38 crew.

"Bye, station," Yurchikhin said as the Soyuz undocked on Sunday. 

"Bye-bye," Nyberg added.

"See you, soon," Parmitano chimed in.

The Olympic torch returning to Earth on the Soyuz first arrived at the space station on Thursday along with replacement crew members for the returning Expedition 37 crew. In a first, the torch was taken on a spacewalk by two cosmonauts on Saturday for a cosmic relay and photo op.

Yurchikhin said he and his crew plan to present the torch to the Olympic Committee after landing. In February, the torch is to play a role in the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. 

Image: Touchdown
After descending from the International Space Station, a Russian Soyuz TMA-09M capsule makes its touchdown in Kazakhstan, returning NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano to Earth.Shamil Zhumatov / EPA

The new arrivals — Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata — temporarily boosted the station's crew to nine people. It was the first time since October 2009 that so many people had been aboard without a visiting NASA space shuttle.

"These guys are like a group of brothers for me," Nyberg said during a Friday news conference, when asked how she felt as the only woman on the crew. "These guys are all great, so it's been fantastic."

With the return of Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano, the transition to the space station's Expedition 38 mission is complete. In addition to Kotov, Tyurin, Mastracchio and Wakata, the crew includes NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins and cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy.

During their busy mission, the Expedition 37 crew welcomed a visiting cargo ship from Japan, as well as the first-ever robotic Cygnus spacecraft, a commercial cargo ship built by the U.S. company Orbital Sciences.

Nyberg embraced social media to share her space voyage with the public. In addition to posting her amazing photos of Earth from space on Twitter, she was the first astronaut to use Pinterest regularly to share her photos and crafts in space.

Parmitano became Italy's first spacewalker with two orbital outings — one of which was cut short by a scary water leak in his spacesuit helmet that NASA engineers are still investigating.

Despite the scare, Parmitano said he would not hesitate to venture outside the station on another spacewalk if the opportunity arose, and will miss living in orbit. "What I am going to miss above everything is the idea of being here, living weightless in this extraordinarily environment," Parmitano said Friday.

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