This story was updated at 4:17 a.m. EDT.
A billionaire space tourist and two professional astronauts returned safely to Earth Wednesday aboard a Russian spacecraft, bringing a successful end to their respective missions to the International Space Station.
American space tourist Charles Simonyi and the station?s returning Expedition 18 crew touched down on the Central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan at 3:16 a.m. EDT (0716 GMT), their Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft parachuting to a pinpoint landing.
The flawless landing marked the end of a smooth flight for Simonyi, the world?s first repeat space tourist, who returned to Earth alongside the station?s Expedition 18 commander Michael Fincke of NASA and Russian flight engineer Yury Lonchakov. It was early afternoon Local Time at their landing site.
?It was a great trip, thank you everyone,? Simonyi, 60, said just before leaving the space station late Tuesday. ?I?m looking forward to get home to my wife, but it was a fantastic trip.?
Simonyi and the Expedition 18 crew were promptly greeted by swarms of recovery workers, who had watched from nearby helicopters as the Soyuz floated down under parachutes and landed. All three spaceflyers were swiftly helped out of their spacecraft and were reported to be in good health after returning to Earth and feeling the tug of gravity once more.
?This is what Earth is like!? Fincke called out.
Space tourist?s second trip
Simonyi paid about $35 million for a 13-day trip to the space station under a deal between Russia?s Federal Space Agency and the Virginia-based firm Space Adventures, which is currently the only firm arranging orbital spaceflights for private citizens. It was Simonyi?s second spaceflight. He last visited the space station in 2007 under a similar deal that cost more than $20 million at the time.
?It was a difficult decision for me to fly for the second time and now looking back, I'm so glad that I've done it,? Simonyi said before leaving, adding that he was able to perform twice as much science, photography and educational events than he did the first time.
Simonyi launched to the station on March 26 with the outpost?s new Expedition 19 crew - veteran cosmonaut commander Gennady Padalka and NASA astronaut Michael Barratt - which replaced Fincke and Lonchakov. A third member of Expedition 19, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, was already aboard the outpost when the new crew members arrived.
?From where I stand, I think humanity has got a wonderful space station in the International Space Station,? Simonyi said, lauding the outpost?s professional crews and ground support. ?Maybe the only thing that is more remarkable than the size and the effectiveness of this space vehicle is the people serving on board.?
Simonyi?s flight was the seventh private flight arranged by Space Adventures and may be the last for some time due to a lack of available Soyuz seats. But the company is hopeful it will be able to offer seats to paying customers, possibly as early as late September.
Back on Earth
Wednesday?s Soyuz landing was delayed one day due to soggy ground conditions at the spacecraft?s first drop zone, which forced Russian flight controllers to shift to a more suitable area southeast of the initial site near the Kazakh city of Dzhezkazgan.
Before Simonyi and the Expedition 18 crew returned to Earth, they bid a fond farewell to the space station?s new Expedition 19 crew. Their Soyuz spacecraft undocked from the station late Tuesday at 11:55 p.m. EDT (0355 GMT) as both spacecraft flew 220 miles (354 km) above eastern Russia.
Fincke said it was the ?coolest thing? in his life to work with NASA and its partners in Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada to build the International Space Station over the last six months, his second tour at the outpost. During that time, he and Lonchakov performed two spacewalks, hosted two visiting NASA space shuttles that boosted the space station to full power and primed it to support larger, six-person crews later this year.
?We do everything together. We're humanity's bright hope for the future,? Fincke said of the entire space station effort. ?So we?re handing over station with all that. The pressure?s on guys!?
?Group hug!? one of the astronauts said with a laugh as all six spaceflyers shared a farewell embrace.
Fincke and Lonchakov spent about 178 days in space during their half-year mission. Fincke is now third on the NASA?s list of most experienced spaceflyers behind spaceflyers Michael Foale and Peggy Whitson, the latter of which holds the top spot with 377 cumulative days in space during two station flights.
?Welcome back to gravity!? someone told Fincke.
The world record for the most cumulative time in space is held by Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who has 803 days in orbit during six spaceflights.
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