The ninth crew to the International Space Station (ISS) and one visiting cosmonaut are safely back on Earth tonight, their Soyuz spacecraft dropping them right on target on the chilly steppes of Kazakhstan.
After six months aboard the space station, Expedition 9 commander Gennady Padalka and flight engineer Michael Fincke were greeted by freezing temperatures and blowing wind when their Soyuz TMA-4 spacecraft touchdown on time at 8:36 p.m. EDT (0036 GMT). Russian Space Forces cosmonaut Yuri Shargin, an ISS visitor, also rode the Soyuz down to Earth.
"It is freezing and it is windy," said NASA spokesman Rob Navias from recovery helicopter staging grounds in Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, of the weather conditions near Expedition 9's landing site.
Recovery crews found Expedition 9's Soyuz spacecraft lying on its side instead of upright, apparently pushed over due to strong winds, NASA commentators said. It was 6:36 a.m. local time, about 90 minutes before sunrise, at the landing site.
Padalka and Fincke return home after an eventful 188-day tour in space that began on April 18. They made some unexpected repairs and conducted four spacewalks, including one of the shortest on record and another that marked the first use of Russian spacesuits for a U.S. segment operation.
"This was a grand adventure," Fincke told flight controllers in the U.S. and Russia during the descent. "We were successful only because we were working together and we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your help in this mission."
The landing marked the end of the first spaceflight for both Fincke and Shargin. Expedition 9 was Padalka's second long-duration space mission.
The Expedition 9 crew and Shargin began their descent in the early afternoon, when they stepped inside their Soyuz spacecraft and locked the hatch connecting it to the station.
Hatch closure occurred at 2:13 p.m. EDT (1813 GMT), at which time the space station's new tenants - Expedition 10 commander Leroy Chiao and flight engineer Salizhan Sharipov - officially took over ISS operations. About three hours of leak checks and undocking preparations followed.
"I'm happy to be in Soyuz, it's a very good vehicle," said Shargin, who arrived at ISS with the Expedition 10 crew on Oct. 16 and spent almost all of his time engrossed in science experiments.
With the ISS drifting freely about 230 miles (180 kilometers) above Kazakhstan, the Expedition 9 crew and Shargin undocked their spacecraft from the station's Zarya control module at 5:08 p.m. EDT (2108 GMT). After springing away from the station, the Soyuz executed an eight-second burn to start its homeward flight.
"Leroy, I left some food paste in the oven and Gennady won't let me come back and get it," Fincke joked with Chiao as the Soyuz backed away.
"That's okay, Gennady left his nametag here too," Chiao answered. "Guys, good luck to you and safe return."
Fincke's homecoming is especially sweet. In addition to once again experiencing gravity, breathing air in the outdoors and seeing his wife Renita, Fincke will finally be able to meet his new daughter Tarali, who was born on June 18 while the astronaut orbited the Earth.
A busy mission
From the start, Padalka and Fincke knew they had a busy mission on their hands.
Less than a day after docking with the ISS, a circuit breaker regulating power to one of the station's attitude-controlling gyroscopes failed, prompting an ad hoc spacewalk that proved more complicated than planned.
Two of the U.S.-built spacesuits the Expedition 9 crew hoped to use for that spacewalk had cooling system problems, leading Padalka and Fincke to use Russian-built Orlan spacesuits to replace the U.S.-built circuit breaker. While the spacefarers were able to make the repair, it took two attempts after the first spacewalk was scrubbed after just 14 minutes when Fincke's spacesuit began losing oxygen pressure unexpectedly.
Two additional spacewalks were aimed primarily at preparing the ISS to receive the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Jules Verne, a cargo ship built by the European Space Agency.
The Expedition 9 crew also repaired a finicky Elektron oxygen-generating device, with Fincke performing an intricate U.S. spacesuit repair typically reserved for engineers on the ground.
Meanwhile, NASA ISS flight controllers credited Fincke's dedication to scientific research. As NASA's ISS Science Officer for Expedition 9, he spent much of his free Saturdays performing science experiments and working with ground-based researchers.
Back on Earth
Although their space mission has officially ended, Padalka and Fincke still have plenty to do in upcoming weeks.
Once they reach Star City, Russia, the Expedition 9 crew will undergo weeks of physical training and therapy to rebuild the muscle and bone strength they lost during their spaceflight. Fincke will still be in Russia during the upcoming U.S. presidential election on Nov. 2, but plans to vote via mail, he said on Oct. 20 news conference.
Although spacebound, Chiao will also vote in the election, casting his ballot via secure e-mail connection.
"I've always been a fan of the space program and now I've been to space," Fincke said after landing. "And I can say now it's worth the money and it's worth the time for us to reach for the stars, Americans and Russians working together."
- ISS Expedition 9: Complete Mission Coverage