Despite makingan off-target landing, three of the International Space Station's (ISS) latestvisitors have safely returned to Earth today, making room aboard the orbitallaboratory for NASA's soon-to-launch space shuttle crew.
Expedition15 cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov as well as Malaysian astronaut,Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, landed today at about 6:36 a.m. (1036 GMT) inside of aSoyuz crew capsule. Nine Russian transport helicopters swept in to greet thespaceflyers shortly after they touched down on the chilly steppes of Kazakhstan.
"Allcrew members have been recovered from the crew module and are feeling quitewell," Russian mission managers said following the worrisome descent andlanding.
"I'dlike to stay in space a little bit longer. I like space," said Kotov,former ISS flight engineer and Soyuz pilot, shortly before undocking from thespace station around 3:14 a.m. EDT (0714 GMT) this morning.
Shukor, anorthopedic surgeon selected from 11,000 applicants to become Malaysia?s firstastronaut, spent 11 days in space and nine aboard the ISS. Kotov and Yurchikhineach spent about 185 days in space, and recently handed control of the ISS overto Expedition16 commander Peggy Whitson?the first female astronaut ever to command aspace station.
The Soyuzcrew's descent lasted about an hour following a deorbit burn at 5:37 a.m. EDT(0937 GMT), which allowed Earth's gravity to take over.
Abouthalfway through the free-fall to Earth, however, the crew notified ground controllers that the Soyuz had entered into a ballistic descent. The steeper, undesirabletrajectory caused the crew to land about 216 miles (347 kilometers) short oftheir intended landing site.
Expedition6 crew members experienceda similar problem on May 3, 2003 with their Soyuz descent, but recoverycrews took several hours to locate the capsule and extract the spaceflyers.
Russian mission managers announced in a press conference shortly after landing that they intend to fully investigate the cause of the Expedition 15's dangerous ballistic descent.
U.S. spaceflyer Clayton Anderson, theone remaining member of the Expedition 15 crew, will stay in orbit as part ofthe Expedition 16 crew until STS-120 crew member Daniel Tani arrives next week.In a space-to-ground interview, Anderson told SPACE.com how he will misshis "brothers" in space and is looking forward to seeing them againonce he lands.
"It?sbeen a wonderful time for me up here with you guys," Anderson told hisExpedition 15 crewmates Friday. "I will miss you, but I will see you backon Earth."
"Sooneror later, everything good has to end," said former ISS commanderYurchikhin, who frequently referred to the station as his ?home? in space."It was a great and very interesting flight."
Shukor performedphysiology and Earth observation experiments, shared traditional Malaysian foodwith his ISS crewmates and, as a devout Muslim, observed theholy month of Ramadan while in orbit. He also expressed his sadness atending an 11-day mission in space.
"Ifeel wonderful," he recently told reporters from the ISS. "I love ithere and I don?t really want to go back (to Earth) yet."
Withtoday?s successful landing, the space station is now clear to receive sevenmore visiting astronauts?and a new orbital room?from NASA?sSTS-120 mission later this week. Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer PamelaMelroy, Discovery?s crew will deliver the new Harmony connecting node that willlay the foundation for future international laboratories at the ISS.
"I?mdefinitely ready for the busy construction ahead," Whitson told SPACE.comfrom the ISS, adding that the station will only get bigger during herflight. "I?m looking forward to, during our expedition, building up theinside."
Kotov toldreporters this week that he tried to spend some of his free time justappreciating the view of the Earth and hopes to leave a healthy space stationbehind for the Expedition 16 crew.
"Wegot this station from the previous crew in good condition," he said."We tried to keep it as such as we pass our home to a new crew."
Spaceshuttle Discovery and its seven-person crew are slated to shoot into space from Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 23 at 11:38 a.m. EDT (1538 GMT) and arrive atthe space station on Oct. 25.
SPACE.comStaff Writer TariqMalik contributed to this report from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
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