Two U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut have returned to Earth after spending 168 days on the International Space Station.
Expedition 54 crewmates Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA and Alexander Misurkin of Russia's federal space agency Roscosmos touched down aboard Russia's Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft Tuesday (Feb. 27). After re-entering the atmosphere, the capsule descended to the ground under a parachute and, slowed by braking thrusters, landed on the snow-dusted, frigid steppe of Kazakhstan at 9:31 p.m. EST (0231 GMT; 8:31 a.m. Kazakh time on Feb. 28).
Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin were assisted out of their Soyuz by Russian recovery forces, who along with NASA flight surgeons, provided initial medical checks to the three crew members. Live video broadcast from the landing site showed the trio to be in good spirits as they began their re-adjustment to gravity. [Space Station Photos: Expedition 54 Crew in Orbit]
Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin began their journey home about three hours before they landed with the undocking of their Soyuz from the space station's Poisk module at 6:08 p.m. EST (2308 GMT). Their departure marked the end of Expedition 54, the space station's 54th resident crew since November 2000.
"It was like one day. It looked like it started only yesterday," said Misurkin during a brief change of command ceremony aboard the station on Monday (Feb. 26). "I will never forgot our jobs and staying here."
Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, NASA's Scott Tingle and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Norishige Kanai, who arrived at the station on Dec. 19 and served on the Expedition 54 crew under Misurkin's command, remain on board the outpost, now as the Expedition 55 crew.
Three more Expedition 55 members — Oleg Artemyev of Roscosmos and Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel of NASA — are scheduled to launch to the space station on March 21 and arrive two days later.
Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin's landing concluded their 168 days in space since launching from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sep. 12. While in orbit, the three took part in and supported hundreds of investigations in the physical and life sciences.
"We didn't broke [sic] almost anything... and hope we give something — good thing and helpful thing — for science," said Misurkin.
Vande Hei and Acaba were part of the first expedition that began a planned long-term increase in the complement on the U.S. segment of the space station, from three people to four, enabling NASA to double the crew time dedicated to research — surpassing 100 hours in one week.
All three crewmates also conducted spacewalks. Misurkin and Acaba each performed one, the earlier setting a new Russian duration record of 8 hours, 13 minutes. Vande Hei went out on four extravehicular activities (EVAs) in support of replacing the latching end effectors, LEEs or hands, on the space station's Canadarm2 robotic arm.
Expedition 53/54 marked Vande Hei's first flight into space, Misurkin's second and Acaba's third. Misurkin has logged 334 days off the planet, including a prior space station stay in 2013. Acaba trails Misurkin by a month with 306 days in orbit after a 2009 shuttle flight and 2012 station expedition.
Now back on Earth, the three Soyuz MS-06 crewmates will return to their respective countries after a brief layover in the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan. Misurkin will be flown to Star City, outside of Moscow; Vande Hei and Acaba will return on a NASA jet to Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Soyuz MS-06 was the 52nd Soyuz to launch to the space station. It completed 2,688 orbits of Earth, traveling a total of 71.1 million miles (114.5 million kilometers).