Three astronauts landed safely back on Earth Sunday after successfully completing their respective missions aboard the International Space Station (ISS).For ISS Expedition 10 commander Leroy Chiao and flight engineer Salizhan Sharipov, landing marked the first time in six months they've set foot on solid ground. "It was quite a ride," Chiao told NASA spokesman Rob Navias after arriving at Arkalyk, Kazakhstan for medical checks. "It was very different from the space shuttle."
Chiao has flown on three shuttle missions during his career.
The Expedition 10 crew landed central Kazakhstan at 6:08 a.m. EDT (2208 GMT) as their Soyuz TMA-5 space capsule touched down on its side about 20 meters from a river. It was 4:08 a.m. April 25 local time, just over two hours before sunrise.
Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori, of the European Space Agency, also accompanied the Expedition 10 crew back to Earth after a 10-day spaceflight that began with the launch of the Expedition 11 crew - Sergei Krikalev and John Phillips - now in charge of the space station.
"I would like to thank Russia, the Russian space agency and all the people who made this flight possible and particularly the Expedition 11 crew," Vittori said today before leaving the ISS.
The Earthbound descent of Vittori and the Expedition 10 crew began earlier today at 11:41 a.m. EDT (1441 GMT), when the three men stepped inside their Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft and closed the hatch to the ISS.
"It was very wonderful that we had this time to work together, and we wish you a successful landing," said Krikalev, Expedition 11 commander, who officially took control of station operations after hatch closure.
The crew apparently had some trouble preparing one of the Russian Sokol spacesuits used for Soyuz flights to and from the ISS, but the glitch was quickly resolved.
"We thought we were going to have to sit at the station and wait until they brought us a new spacesuit," Sharipov joked as the Soyuz spacecraft backed away from the space station.
Sharipov commanded the Soyuz spacecraft for the third time with today's flight, manually undocking from the ISS at 2:44:40 p.m. EDT (1844:40 GMT) while flying over Central Asia. He also flew the Soyuz TMA-5 spacecraft during Expedition 10's launch and docking last October, as well as during a relocation maneuver earlier this year.
The crew was reportedly in good health, NASA officals said, adding that the Soyuz spacecraft streaked directly overhead of Arkalyk during landing.
"It was an absolutely beautiful sight," said NASA spokesman Rob Navias from the Arkalyk airstrip, adding that the spacecraft appeared like an orange-colored comet. "We saw the Soyuz in a clear sky and starry night, with a full moon."
The space station's Expedition 11 crew was also able to see the fiery reentry of the Soyuz spacecraft, including the point where the human-carrying capsule separated from the expendable propulsion and orbital modules.
"I watched the separation over the black sea," said Phillips, Expedition 11 flight engineer. "It was quite spectacular."
A successful mission
"It was a great adventure," Sharipov said this week. "I am very satisfied that I was given an opportunity to work onboard the International Space Station."
The two astronauts also experienced a few hitches during their flight, including the need for repeated repairs of the station's primary oxygen generator, a Russian device known as the Elektron, and a food shortage that ultimately put them on diet of candy and sweets until a fresh supply ship reached the station.
"It was unpleasant," Chiao said in an interview broadcast on NASA TV earlier this week. "I sure feel like we have gained the weight back and the station is really flush with food."
Altogether, the crew lost between five and 10 pounds on the diet, the crew said. "The things we missed most are our family and friends," said Chiao, adding that he also looked forward to the presence of nature again after the sterile ISS environment.
"I'm looking forward to getting back, smelling the grass and seeing the squirrels running around. I'm even looking forward to the Houston heat again." "I miss Earth," Sharipov added in anticipation of today's landing. "I'd like to get my two feet on the ground for once and of course smell the flowers and see the Sun above."
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 10