A U.S. scientist who paid$20 million to visit the International Space Station (ISS) is back on Earth,along with two astronauts, after their Soyuz spacecraft touched down safely onthe steppes of Kazakhstan Monday.
GregoryOlsen, the third space tourist to visit the ISS, and the two-astronaut crewof ISS Expedition11 landed their Soyuz TMA-6 spacecraft right on time today at 9:09 p.m. EDT(0109 Oct. 11).
"I feel great,"Olsen said as he finished an apple while recovery workers conducted medicalchecks. "I can't wait to walk around and have some real food, and take ashower."
The landing ended a 10-dayspaceflight for Olsen and a six-month mission for Expedition 11 commanderSergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips. Krikalev and Phillips launchedtoward the ISS in mid-April and spent 179 days aboard the orbital outpostbefore turning it over to their replacements - Expedition12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev - earlier today.
"Thanks for a greatfireworks show," ISS Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur told NASAmission controllers in Houston, Texas, adding that he and Tokarev were able tospot the bright plasma trail from Expedition 11's reentry. "We had awonderful view."
Expedition 11 landed justin time for Phillips to celebrate his wife Laura's birthday - it was 7:09 a.m.on Oct 11 at the astronaut's Kazakh landing site - which was a happy coincidencesince the he launched toward the ISS on his own 54th birthday onApril 15th.
A successful flight
Expedition 11'slanding ended a day of spaceflight for Krikalev, Phillips and Olsen which beganas their Soyuz spacecraft undocked from the ISS at 5:49 p.m. EDT (2149 GMT).
Krikalev guided thespacecraft manually to conserve battery power, gently easing the three-tonSoyuz away from its docking port at the space station's Zarya control module.
"I see that we'removing smoothly," Krikalev said as the Soyuz pulled away from the ISS.
Today's landing also cappeda 179-day mission for Krikalev and Phillips, giving the Expedition 11commander at a lifetime total of 803 days in space - the most any human hasever spent off planet. Krikalev broke the record on Aug. 16, when he surpassed748 days in space and the previous record held by cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev. Krikalev is the only cosmonaut tomake six spaceflights and the first to serve two stints aboard the ISS.
"I think this is a bigadventure," he told SPACE.com last week, adding that setting records wasnot his plan.
The Soyuz departure markedthe end of Expedition 11's months-long stay aboard the ISS, during which they maintainedthe space station, conducted one spacewalkand received the first visiting space shuttle crew since December 2002.
"I'm proud to say we'releaving the station in excellent condition," Phillips told SPACE.com lastweek during a space-to-ground interview. "I'm very satisfied with the resultsof our mission."
Despite the spaceflight'ssuccess, there were some disappointments, including the delay of a secondshuttle flight due to ongoing externaltank debris issues, Phillips added.
"We were expecting to behere when the second shuttle flight came, and they were going to bring us athird crewmember, which would have been huge," Phillips said. "We weredisappointed...but the important thing is to make sure we fly safely."
NASA is currently workingto reduce foam shedding from external tanks during launch, a problem that doomed the Columbia shuttle in2003 and cropped up againduring the recent DiscoverySTS-114 flight to the ISS, before making its next orbiter flight in spring2006.
Expedition 11 was Phillips'first long-duration spaceflight and included the first spacewalk of hisastronaut career.
"It was a wonderfuladventure and a wonderful experience...it was basically everything I thought itwould be," Phillips said of working outside the ISS, adding that he wassurprised that he didn't have to steel himself against plunging into theblackness of space. "But it felt almost routine for me. It was time to go out,and I went out."
A space odyssey ends
For Olsen, the Soyuzlanding concludes what has been a dream cometrue for the New Jersey resident and co-founder of the optics firm SensorsUnlimited, Inc.
Olsen launchedto the ISS with the Expedition 12 crew on Sept. 30 EDT under a commercialagreement with Russia's Federal Space Agency, arrivingat the orbital complex on Oct. 3 for about eight days of weightlessness, Earthobservation and medical experiments.
The U.S. scientist is the thirdspaceflight participant to visit the ISS under a deal brokered by theArlington, Virginia-based space tourism firm Space Adventures, which alsoarranged space station flights for South African Internet mogul MarkShuttleworth in 2002 and American entrepreneur Dennis Tito in 2001.
"Greg, how are you feeling,"Russian flight controllers asked Olsen just before undocking.
"Excellent," Olsen replied.
Olsen overcame some hurdlesto secure his multi-million dollar spaceflight, including an undisclosedmedical condition that prevented him from completing his Russian cosmonauttraining at Star City in 2004. But that condition was not a problem by May 2005and he resumedhis training in time to launch spaceward with the Expedition 11 crew.
With Olsen's spaceflightcompleted, Russian space officials reportedly said that the next ISS-boundtourist would be either a Japanese businessman or an American.
"We now have the next,fourth candidate for space tourism, who has passed a medical test and willprobably fly in a year," Alexei Krasnov, chief of the Russian FederalSpace Agency's manned space flight programs, said in an interview for the JapaneseAsahi newspaper according to Russia's Interfax news agency
Krasnov said the Japanesebusinessman could face some competition from a U.S. space tourist, and addedthat "the one who proves better prepared will fly," Interfax stated,adding that any private space flyer would launch in fall 2006, since there areno vacant seats aboard the next Soyuz to liftoff in March.
Phillips and Krikalev saidthey were looking forward to resuming their terrestrial lives and welcomed suchsmall treasures as the aroma of fresh coffee, an open sky and weather.
"It's kindof a sterile environment," Phillips said of the ISS during a press conferencelast week. "I want to experience weather, the smell of trees, even the sound ofcars going by, something that's more like the real world that I live in athome."
In themeantime, both Expedition 11 astronauts are confident that their time aboardthe ISS helped prepare it for future crews. Last month, Krikalev restoredthe station's finicky Elektron oxygen generator to operation, and Discovery'sSTS-114 spacewalking crew replacedone of four vital gyroscopes required to orient the orbital platform.
"I don't have any concernsabout the future months for the next [station] crew of subsequent missions,"Krikalev told SPACE.com last week. "Everyday of our flight ispreparation for future missions."
- Gregory Olsen: Third Space Tourist Aims for Orbit
- Image Gallery: Space Tourist Greg Olsen prepares for launch
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 11
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 12