Three astronauts returned to Earth Saturday, ending six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for one crew and a historic first spaceflight for the country of Brazil.
ISS Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur, flight engineer Valery Tokarev and Brazil's first astronaut Marcos Pontes smiled for cameras after their Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft touched down on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
"It was a heck of a ride," McArthur said after landing, comparing it to an amusement park ride. "It was like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, you'd love it."
Homeland Has Much to Gain From Spaceflight, Brazilian Astronaut Says
"For me this has been a very special week," Pontes said Friday. "It was my first flight and it was the first flight for Brazil. I am very happy."
Pontes rode up to the ISS on March 29 with the space station's new crew, Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeffrey Williams, which will spend the next six months aboard the orbital laboratory.
"I'm sure the space station will be in very good hands from now on," said Pontes, who initially trained for a shuttle flight since 1998 only to secure a Soyuz seat last year.
McArthur, 54, and Tokarev, 53, staged two spacewalks since they arrived aboard the space station in October 2005. They also tossed an unmanned Russian spacesuit into orbit as part of a radio experiment.
The astronauts became the first space station crew to dock a Soyuz spacecraft at every available Russian-built port, and had the fortune of being in orbit during a rare solar eclipse, in which the Moon's shadow was visible on Earth.
"I was desperate to see it and it was certainly the opportunity of a lifetime," McArthur said. "All I could see was a dark shadow below the station...it was pretty darn big."
The Expedition 12 crew had hoped to host NASA's second shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia accident - STS-121 aboard Discovery - which was to deliver a third ISS crewmember, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, to the orbital laboratory.
Delays due to ongoing fuel tank foam and sensor modifications for STS-121's external tank have pushed the spaceflight's launch target to no earlier than July, placing it within the Expedition 13 crew's increment.
"We'd like to wish the crew of [Expedition] 13 a successful, uneventful in the good sense, mission," Tokarev said before leaving the ISS.
Expedition 13's Vinogradov and Williams said they were eager for Reiter to join them in July and also hope for another shuttle mission in August. That second mission is expected to restart station construction efforts, which have been stalled since the Columbia accident.
"Were looking forward to the weekend, to rest up for a little bit then we'll get down to business," Williams said after Pontes and the Expedition 12 crew departed.
A final flight
Before launching toward the ISS in October, McArthur said he expected Expedition 12 to be his last spaceflight, something his wife Cindy - who works in NASA's education office at Johnson Space Center - is looking forward to.
"I encouraged him to make that decision on his own," Cindy McArthur told SPACE.com during the Expedition 12 mission. "He thought it was time for other people to have a chance to fly. It will be interesting to have him home for awhile, he's been traveling so much."
A retired U.S. Army colonel, Bill McArthur is a veteran of four spaceflights - three of which aboard NASA space shuttles - though Expedition 12 is his first long-duration flight. Expedition 12 also marked the first long-duration flight for Tokarev, who flew aboard the Discovery orbiter during the STS-96 mission.
Cindy McArthur planned to greet her husband in Russia's Star City with their two daughters - one of whom is pregnant with the couple's first grandchild - and a son-in-law.
Earlier this week, Bill McArthur told reporters that he, and the rest of his relatives, will learn whether the new child is a boy or girl together as a family.
"It will be just a delight to see them all," McArthur said.
- Mission's End: ISS Astronauts to Return to Earth
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- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 12
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 13