Three space fliers have safely touched down on Earth after almost six months aboard the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko all arrived at the station together for Expedition 49/50 mission in October 2016, and they reached solid ground this morning (April 10) at 7:20 a.m. EDT (1120 GMT) in Kazakhstan. They spent 173 days in space during their flight.
"It was a textbook touchdown," NASA spokesperson Rob Navias said during live NASA TV commentary after the landing. "The Soyuz was pulled by its main parachute onto its side, but the crew was quickly extracted and are in good shape."
Those monitoring the launch at Mission Control, and on NASA TV, had "some of the most spectacular video we've ever seen" of the capsule's journey down and landing on the cloudless steppe, Navias said — about 14 minutes of footage, from just after the chutes deployed to touchdown.
Kimbrough transferred command of the space station to NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson yesterday (April 9) before the trio left, making her the first woman to command the space station twice. (She was also the space station's first female commander, in 2008.)
After closing the hatch to the Russian Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft near 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT) this morning, the three undocked from the station about 3 hours later. Next, the spacecraft fired its main engine for 4.5 minutes starting at 6:28 a.m. EDT (1028 GMT) to slow down by 420 feet (128 meters) per second and finally leave orbit to return to Earth — in all, a much shorter journey than their two-day trip up to the station on that spacecraft last year. (The Soyuz can reach the station in as quickly as 6 hours, but on recent launches the arriving crewmembers have been testing features of the upgraded MS-02 spacecraft, and so took the longer route.)
Ryzhikov, who has now completed his first-ever space mission, commanded the Soyuz. Expedition 49/50 marked the second space missions for both Kimbrough and Ryzhikov. The three space travelers shared their ride home with science samples and other cargo along with personal items, according to NASA's space station blog.
Still on board, Whitson, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy won't be alone for long: NASA's Jack Fischer and Russia's Fyodor Yurchikhin are set to launch April 20 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The two were monitoring this landing from the Cosmodrome, Navias said during the broadcast.
Kimbrough recently performed two spacewalks — one with Pesquet and one with Whitson — to prepare the space station to install a second International Docking Adaptor, which will one day let commercial vehicles dock with the space station. Right now, only the Soyuz can bring humans to the station and dock.