A Soyuz capsule with two Russians and an American on board touched down safely on Friday afternoon in mild weather on the sweeping steppes of central Kazakhstan.
The three-man crew, comprising Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin and Nasa’s Daniel Burbank, returned to earth after a 163-day stay on the International Space Station.
The Russian-made module gently landed on schedule at 11.45am GMT, throwing up a puff of earth in a remote and dusty location north of the central Kazakh town of Arkalyk.
Eight search-and-rescue helicopters circled the landing site to ensure a speedy recovery process.
NASA television broadcast vivid images of the capsule carried by a parachute swaying slightly as it floated downward in the clear skies while six all-terrain vehicles approached the landing spot in a well-rehearsed procedure.
The capsule rolled onto its side during the landing, which is common, picking up a coating of rough tinder-dry wild steppe grass.
Shkaplerov, who was positioned in the central seat, was the first to be hauled out and hoisted into a reclining chair. While medical personnel mopped his brow and checked his vital signals, the astronaut smiled broadly and chatted with his colleagues.
Ivanishin, and then a heartily laughing Burbank, went through the same procedure a few minutes later.
Speaking from the touchdown site, Nasa spokesperson Rob Navias said this was a “bulls-eye landing”.
“The spacecraft landed almost exactly where it was forecast to,” he told Nasa television.
The capsule’s voyage from the space station started three-and-a-half hours earlier, when it undocked and began a slow, gentle drift away from the space station.
At around 100km above the earth, the Soyuz began atmospheric re-entry, at which point the module’s computer oriented the capsule’s heat-resistant shield forward to protect the space travellers from the intense heat generated by friction with the air.
The crew then began sensing gravity for the first time in almost half a year.
A little under 15 minutes ahead of touchdown, with the Soyuz traveling at around 220m per second, the onboard computer commanded a series of parachutes to deploy.
In the final minutes before touchdown, the braking parachutes were jettisoned to make way for the billowing ringed parachute that slows the module to around seven metres per second.
Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko takes over as commander of the space station and will stay on at the orbiting laboratory until July, together with Nasa astronaut Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands. — Sapa-AP