Thisstory was updated at 6:05 a.m. EDT.
TheInternational Space Station?s (ISS) first female commander and two crewmatesare safely back on Earth, but landed well short of their intended landing siteas they capped a marathon mission to the orbiting laboratory.
The RussianSoyuz TMA-11 spacecraft ferrying Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, ofNASA, and her crew to Earth touched down about 295 miles (475 km) short of itstarget zone on the central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan.
?The crewis alive and well. The landing was nominal, but by a backup design,? said AnatolyPerminov, chief of Russia?s Federal Space Agency, after the 4:30 a.m. EDT (0830GMT) landing. ?It was a ballistic descent and all the cosmonauts are feelingfine.?
A ballisticreentry is one in which a Soyuz reenters at a steeper than normal angle thatsubjects astronaut crews to higher forces of gravity , NASA officials said.
Cosmonautsreturning from the space station last fall also experienceda ballistic reentry, as did the crew of Expedition 6 in 2003.
Whitsonreturned home alongside Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, an Expedition 16flight engineer, after a six-month mission that added new science and living spaceto the $100 billion station. South Korea?s first astronaut, 29-year-oldbioengineer So-yeon Yi, also accompanied the Expedition 16 crew to conclude herown 10-day spaceflight to the ISS.
Malenchenko,as Soyuz commander, used a satellite phone to contact recovery forces to relaythat the crew was in good health.
?We wentthrough thesame thing on Expedition 6,? said Steve Lindsey, NASA?s chief astronaut whoplanned to greet Whitson at the original landing site. ?Of course we didn?thear from them for awhile, so we were concerned. But eventually we got wordthat they were located so that?s real good news.?
Recoveryteams located the Soyuz crew about 45 minutes its scheduled landing with acomplement of flight surgeons to begin traditional post-landing health checks,Lindsey added.
Russianspace officials promised an in-depth investigation to hunt down the source ofthe ballistic landing. Meanwhile, Expedition 16 crew members were eager toreadapt to life on Earth.
?We?vereally had a very exciting mission,? Whitson said this week. ?And to have doneso much, it was more than we could have asked for.?
While shewas not looking forward to returning to Earth?s gravity after months ofweightlessness, Whitson said she was eager for a wider variety of food atmealtimes and getting back to her roots, literally, at her home in Houston,Texas.
?I reallylike working in my garden and planting flowers,? Whitson said. ?It?s about theright time in Houston to be doing that.?
Whitson seta new spaceflight record on Expedition 16 for the most cumulative time spent inspace by an American.
Today?slanding ended a 192-day flight to the station, giving Whitson a career total of377 days in space during Expedition 16 and her Expedition 5 flight in 2002. Sheis now 20th in the ranks of the world?s most experienced spaceflyers, thoughMalenchenko - with 515 days across four spaceflights - now ranks ninth on thelist.
?It was awonderful time,? he said of the mission.
Whitson andher crew began Expedition 16 at a sprint, hosting the first of three visitingNASA shuttle crews about two weeks after their October launch. By lateNovember, shuttle and ISS astronauts had moved a massive solar power tower,performed seven spacewalks and some tricky robotic crane work to attach a newmodule to space station.
Two moreshuttle flights, in February and March of this year, delivered Europe?s $2billion Columbus laboratory and a storage room for Japan?s massive Kibo lab,which is slated to launch May 31 aboard the shuttle Discovery. Whitson and hercrew also squeezed in extra spacewalks to inspect one solar wing joint andrepair another.
?It?s solarge that I can actually lose crew members at times now,? Whitson said of thespace station before turning it over to its new skipper, Expedition 17commander Sergei Volkov. ?It?s so neat, and I think we?re ready for asix-person crew now.?
Volkov - a second-generationcosmonaut - and Expedition 17 flight engineer Oleg Kononenko are beginningtheir own six-month mission alongside NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman. They launched with Yi on April 8.
?I feelconfident going into Expedition 17 with Sergei and Oleg,? said Reisman, whojoined the station?s Expedition 16 crew last month and is due to return home inJune. ?It?s going to be an all rookie station. I think that?s a first.?
Yi,meanwhile, flewto the space station under a reported $25 million commercial agreementbetween her country and Russia?s Federal Space Agency and performed a series ofeducation and science experiments.
She wasselected from among 36,000 applicants to serve as backup to South Korea?s firstastronaut, artificial intelligence expert San Ko, but moved to the prime crewlast month after Russian space officials pulled Ko from the flight due toreading rule violations.
?As a womanof Korea, and just a person of Korea, I?m so honored to be the one who flew inspace,? Yi told reporters this week, adding that she took special care withexperiments designed to spark interest in science among Korean youth. ?I wantto make them dream about space.?
Despite itsambitious construction work, the Expedition 16 crew was not without challenges.
Whitson,Malenchenko and their crewmates tackled a torn solar wing, damaged solar arraygears and shuttle launch delays that ultimately kept one Expedition 16astronaut - NASA spaceflyer Dan Tani - in orbit while he grieved over theunexpected death of his mother in December. Tani returned to Earth two monthslater, in mid-February, during NASA?s first shuttle mission of this year.
?I actuallythink some of my proudest moments of this mission have been how we handled theproblems that have come up,? Whitson said.
In just thelast few weeks, Expedition 16 astronauts bid farewell to last month?s visitingshuttle Endeavour crew, watched over the arrival of Europe?s first-ever unmannedcargo ship Jules Verne and welcomed their relief crew before preparing forthe trip home.
?I waslikening it the other day to Grand Central Station,? said Reisman, adding thathe initially expected some bouts of down time and isolation aboard the outpost.?There hasn?t been any tedium up here, it?s all been action packed. It?s likethe Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of space missions.?
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