Home Again: Space Tourist, ISS Crew Return to Earth
Image stills from NASA TV show U.S. space tourist Charles Simonyi (left), Expedition 14 flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin (center) and Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria shortly after their Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft landed on April 21, 20007.
Credit: NASA TV.

This story was updated at 10:03 a.m. EDT.

A Russian spacecraft carrying an American billionaire and two professional astronauts returned to Earth Saturday after a record-setting spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Soyuz TMA-9 capsule touched down on the remote Central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan at about 8:31 a.m. EDT (1231 GMT) to ferry U.S. entrepreneur Charles Simonyi -- the world's fifth space tourist to the ISS -- back to Earth alongside Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin.

"It's good to be back, to be back on Earth," Simonyi said after landing. "It's fantastic."

With the landing, Lopez-Alegria set a new U.S. record for the longest single spaceflight after the 215-day Expedition 14 mission. He and Tyurin surpassed NASA's previous spaceflight record of about 196 days, set by astronauts Carl Walz and Dan Bursch during 2002's Expedition 4 mission, earlier this month.

Simonyi, too, set his own duration record -- about 14 days -- for the longest space tourist trek to the ISS. Previous private tourist flights were around 10 days or less.  

"It's a bittersweet moment for all of us," said Simonyi, who is paying between $20 million and $25 million for his trip, said during a farewell ceremony peppered with hearty hugs, handshakes and smiles. "We are very sad leaving the station but we are looking forward, all of us, to continuing our work on Earth."

Simonyi's flight, like four previous space tourist treks to the ISS, stemmed from an agreement between Russia's Federal Space Agency and the Virginia-based firm Space Adventures, which has brokered each of the five private spaceflyer flights. He is chronicling his experiences via his Web site: www.charlesinspace.com.

The Soyuz and ISS undocked from one another at 5:10 a.m. EDT (0910 GMT) as they flew 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Eastern Asia to make what Tyurin described later as a "clockwork" landing.

Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin left the ISS in control of its new Expedition 15 crew, with veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin in command and first-time flyer Oleg Kotov as flight engineer. NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who arrived at the station as a flight engineer in December, joined the Expedition 15 mission for its first stage.

"It's been amazing watching you come aboard as a clumsy rookie, and as I leave you, you're a steely eyed ace," Lopez-Alegria told Williams, who is making her first flight, this week. "It's really been a privilege."

Williams and her crewmates aboard the ISS watched video of their crewmates landing via a NASA uplink.

"This is unbelievable and great, thank you so much for the video," said Williams after the successful landing. "It's hard to believe that we were just having tea with them a couple of hours ago."

Saturday's landing activities were not impacted by events Friday at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to the space station's U.S. Mission Control center, where a gunman took two people hostage, killing one man and then himself, according to police.

Records galore and living in space

For Lopez-Alegria, the Expedition 14 mission has been one of shattering spaceflight records.

In addition to setting NASA's new single spaceflight benchmark, he also racked up five more spacewalks during the seven-month flight for a career total of 10 excursions and more than 67 hours of spacesuit-ed work time, both U.S. records in their own right. Williams, too, became the most experienced female spacewalker in history with four excursions staged during the mission. She is expected to break Lopez-Alegria's U.S. single spaceflight duration record later this summer.

But breaking records in space, Lopez-Alegria said, is largely a game of chance.

"I liken us to be more like the guy in the stands who catches the ball, we just happen to be in the right place at the right time," the astronaut, an avid baseball fan, told ABC News this week. "It's with a certain humility that we have to admit that we were just lucky."

During Expedition 14, astronaut hosted a visiting space shuttle mission -- December's STS-116 station assembly flight -- and staged five spacewalks. Three of them overhauled the station's cooling system in February, while a pair of Russian spacewalks included a round of orbital golf and the unplanned repair of a stuck cargo ship antenna.

It is the unplanned work, such as the antenna repair and the wrangling of a recalcitrant solar array into storage boxes during the STS-116 mission that Lopez-Alegria said he is most proud of. But the simple acts of day-to-day life, rather than work, will be among his most precious memories, he added.

"This has been living up here, we certainly work hard when we're working but we also have time to relax, we have a little bit more time to think about things," Lopez-Alegria told reporters during the station crew swap. "I can say that I've lived in space, not just worked, and I think I'm going to miss that sensation of just having this be my home."

Lopez-Alegria said that after seven months in orbit with a repeating in-flight menu, he was looking forward to once more feeling gravity's embrace, seeing his family and the variety of foods available on Earth.

"I'm kind of looking forward to a good single malt scotch and I'm looking forward to seeing my son again," the Expedition 14 commander told Florida Today.

Tyurin too, who last flew aboard the ISS as part of the Expedition 3 crew, said he is sad to leave the station, but hopes one day to return.

"Of course I would like to continue my experience staying here on board and take part in future missions because it's not only my specialty, my job," Tyurin said. "It's a big part of my life."

Space tourist's trip

For Simonyi, 58, his 14 days in space have been packed with science experiments, Earth observations and a series of radio and video sessions to relate his experience with students and the public.

"Thank you very much for the hospitality," Simonyi told flight controllers and astronauts Saturday before undocking. "I enjoyed working here with the excellent commanders."

Reaching for space has been a lifelong pursuit for the Hungary-born Simonyi, a former Microsoft software developer and co-founder of the firm Intentional Software Corp., who represented his country as a Junior Astronaut at age 13 during a trip to Moscow. He performed a series of space radiation measurement for the Hungary Space Office using a Hungarian-built dosimeter, tested high definition video cameras for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and participated in several biomedical experiments for the European Space Agency.

Simonyi launched towards the ISS on April 7 with the Expedition 15 crew, and received several bonus days in orbit. Two extra days were added to his flight to ensure he and the Expedition 14 astronauts landed in daylight. Russian flight controllers added a third extra day to the flight Tuesday in order to switch to a backup landing site after heavy rains flooded the primary target.

"I think it's excellent to have this extra day," Simonyi said in his last radio broadcast from the ISS posted to his Web site Friday. "I don't know how we would have done without it."

But it was the feedback from his Web site, where some questions from visitors were answered by the space tourist during radio or video sessions, and the HAM radio sessions with schools that Simonyi found surprisingly successful. He hopes to add written commentary about his flight to his blog, and reflect on his space experiences in upcoming days.

"I think that was probably the most successful part of this mission," Simonyi said. "It's really beyond anything I could have imagined."