Space Station Astronauts Land Off-Target, But Safely
A camera aboard the International Space Station captured this image of the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft shortly after undocking on April 19, 2008.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 6:05 a.m. EDT.

The International Space Station?s (ISS) first female commander and two crewmates are safely back on Earth, but landed well short of their intended landing site as they capped a marathon mission to the orbiting laboratory.

The Russian Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft ferrying Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, of NASA, and her crew to Earth touched down about 295 miles (475 km) short of its target zone on the central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan.

?The crew is alive and well. The landing was nominal, but by a backup design,? said Anatoly Perminov, chief of Russia?s Federal Space Agency, after the 4:30 a.m. EDT (0830 GMT) landing. ?It was a ballistic descent and all the cosmonauts are feeling fine.?

A ballistic reentry is one in which a Soyuz reenters at a steeper than normal angle that subjects astronaut crews to higher forces of gravity , NASA officials said.

Cosmonauts returning from the space station last fall also experienced a ballistic reentry, as did the crew of Expedition 6 in 2003.

Whitson returned home alongside Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, an Expedition 16 flight engineer, after a six-month mission that added new science and living space to the $100 billion station. South Korea?s first astronaut, 29-year-old bioengineer So-yeon Yi, also accompanied the Expedition 16 crew to conclude her own 10-day spaceflight to the ISS.

Malenchenko, as Soyuz commander, used a satellite phone to contact recovery forces to relay that the crew was in good health.

?We went through the same thing on Expedition 6,? said Steve Lindsey, NASA?s chief astronaut who planned to greet Whitson at the original landing site. ?Of course we didn?t hear from them for awhile, so we were concerned. But eventually we got word that they were located so that?s real good news.?

Recovery teams located the Soyuz crew about 45 minutes its scheduled landing with a complement of flight surgeons to begin traditional post-landing health checks, Lindsey added.

Back on Earth

Russian space officials promised an in-depth investigation to hunt down the source of the ballistic landing. Meanwhile, Expedition 16 crew members were eager to readapt to life on Earth.

?We?ve really had a very exciting mission,? Whitson said this week. ?And to have done so much, it was more than we could have asked for.?

While she was not looking forward to returning to Earth?s gravity after months of weightlessness, Whitson said she was eager for a wider variety of food at mealtimes and getting back to her roots, literally, at her home in Houston, Texas.

?I really like working in my garden and planting flowers,? Whitson said. ?It?s about the right time in Houston to be doing that.?

Whitson set a new spaceflight record on Expedition 16 for the most cumulative time spent in space by an American.

Today?s landing ended a 192-day flight to the station, giving Whitson a career total of 377 days in space during Expedition 16 and her Expedition 5 flight in 2002. She is now 20th in the ranks of the world?s most experienced spaceflyers, though Malenchenko - with 515 days across four spaceflights - now ranks ninth on the list.

?It was a wonderful time,? he said of the mission.

Space station expansion

Whitson and her crew began Expedition 16 at a sprint, hosting the first of three visiting NASA shuttle crews about two weeks after their October launch. By late November, shuttle and ISS astronauts had moved a massive solar power tower, performed seven spacewalks and some tricky robotic crane work to attach a new module to space station.

Two more shuttle flights, in February and March of this year, delivered Europe?s $2 billion Columbus laboratory and a storage room for Japan?s massive Kibo lab, which is slated to launch May 31 aboard the shuttle Discovery. Whitson and her crew also squeezed in extra spacewalks to inspect one solar wing joint and repair another.

?It?s so large that I can actually lose crew members at times now,? Whitson said of the space station before turning it over to its new skipper, Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov. ?It?s so neat, and I think we?re ready for a six-person crew now.?

Volkov - a second-generation cosmonaut - and Expedition 17 flight engineer Oleg Kononenko are beginning their own six-month mission alongside NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman. They launched with Yi on April 8.

?I feel confident going into Expedition 17 with Sergei and Oleg,? said Reisman, who joined the station?s Expedition 16 crew last month and is due to return home in June. ?It?s going to be an all rookie station. I think that?s a first.?

Yi, meanwhile, flew to the space station under a reported $25 million commercial agreement between her country and Russia?s Federal Space Agency and performed a series of education and science experiments.

She was selected from among 36,000 applicants to serve as backup to South Korea?s first astronaut, artificial intelligence expert San Ko, but moved to the prime crew last month after Russian space officials pulled Ko from the flight due to reading rule violations.

?As a woman of Korea, and just a person of Korea, I?m so honored to be the one who flew in space,? Yi told reporters this week, adding that she took special care with experiments designed to spark interest in science among Korean youth. ?I want to make them dream about space.?

A challenging half-year

Despite its ambitious construction work, the Expedition 16 crew was not without challenges.

Whitson, Malenchenko and their crewmates tackled a torn solar wing, damaged solar array gears and shuttle launch delays that ultimately kept one Expedition 16 astronaut - NASA spaceflyer Dan Tani - in orbit while he grieved over the unexpected death of his mother in December. Tani returned to Earth two months later, in mid-February, during NASA?s first shuttle mission of this year.

?I actually think some of my proudest moments of this mission have been how we handled the problems that have come up,? Whitson said.

In just the last few weeks, Expedition 16 astronauts bid farewell to last month?s visiting shuttle Endeavour crew, watched over the arrival of Europe?s first-ever unmanned cargo ship Jules Verne and welcomed their relief crew before preparing for the trip home.

?I was likening it the other day to Grand Central Station,? said Reisman, adding that he initially expected some bouts of down time and isolation aboard the outpost. ?There hasn?t been any tedium up here, it?s all been action packed. It?s like the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of space missions.?