Three cosmonauts returned safely from the International Space Station, landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan after six and a half months in orbit.
Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov, all with the Russian federal space corporation Roscosmos, touched down aboard the Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft (opens in new tab) at 6:57 a.m. EDT (1057 GMT or 4:57 p.m. local time) on Thursday (Sept. 29). Their parachute-assisted landing southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan brought to an end the first flight of an all-Russian career-cosmonaut crew in more than two decades.
Russian recovery teams were on site soon after the Soyuz spacecraft landed to assist the crew as they exited the descent capsule and began readjusting to the normal pull of gravity. All three cosmonauts were in good spirits as they took their first breaths in of the crisp, fresh air that they had been missing during their 195 days on the International Space Station.
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"Excellent, we feel excellent," said Artemyev, describing his and his crewmates' condition.
Artemyev, Matveev and Korsakov launched to the orbiting complex (opens in new tab) on March 18 to join the station's Expedition 66 crew. Their departure, at 3:34 a.m. EDT (0734 GMT) on Thursday, marked the formal beginning of Expedition 68. Artemyev, who led Expedition 67, handed over lead to European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti before leaving the station.
"I think I speak on behalf of all our crew in saying how much we appreciated your leadership in the last months," Cristoforetti told Artemyev during a brief change of command ceremony on Wednesday. "I think you have really helped us grow together, not only as crew members and crewmates, but also as one big space family."
Cristoforetti is the first European woman and first Italian to command the station.
"It's obviously an honor and a privilege to represent Europe in space on the space station. And of course, as an Italian astronaut, it's especially an honor to represent Italy," she said.
Cristoforetti has been on the station since April, when she and NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins arrived aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon "Freedom." (opens in new tab) They are set to return to Earth five days after the arrival of the next Dragon crew — including Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada of NASA, Koichi Wakata of JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina (opens in new tab) — currently targeted for no earlier than Wednesday (Oct. 5), pending Hurricane Ian's impact on NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Expedition 68 crew also includes Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin of Roscosmos and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who arrived at the station aboard Soyuz MS-22 on Sept. 21 (opens in new tab).
Artemyev, Matveev and Korsakov's time in space was highlighted by a series of five spacewalks devoted to configuring and outfitting a new European robotic arm for use on the Russian segment of the station. Artemyev and Matveev logged 26 hours and 7 minutes on four of the outings. The fifth spacewalk took Artemyev and Cristoforetti 7 hours and 5 minutes to complete.
Korsakov supported the extravehicular activities of his crewmates by coordinating their tasks from inside.
Between the spacewalks and assisting with U.S.-launched science experiments, the cosmonauts installed and tested a new 3D printer built by the Energia Space Rocket Corporation. Artemyev also filed reports as a special correspondent for the TASS news agency.
This was Artemyev's third flight to the space station. The 51-year-old cosmonaut has now logged more than 561 days in low Earth orbit.
Matveev, 39, and Korsakov, 38, both completed their first spaceflights. All three Soyuz MS-21 crewmates were graduates of Bauman Moscow State Technical University. The design of their mission patch was modeled after the school's crest.
The Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft traveled a total of 77 million miles (124 million km) while completing 2,960 orbits of Earth.