US, Russian space trio lands in Kazakhstan

Associated Press Modified: September 16, 2012 at 11:31 pm •  Published: September 16, 2012
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ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — An international three-man crew onboard a Russian-made Soyuz capsule touched down successfully on the cloudless central Kazakhstan steppe Monday morning after 123 days at the International Space Station.

A fleet of Russian Mi-8 helicopters deployed from towns near the landing site ahead of the capsule's arrival early Monday morning to ensure swift interception.

NASA's Joe Acaba and Russian colleagues Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin undocked from the orbiting laboratory somewhere over Nairobi, Kenya, some 3 ½ hours before touchdown. The Soyuz craft remains the only means for international astronauts to reach the space station since the decommissioning of the U.S. Shuttle fleet in 2011.

The size of the three-person complement currently at the space station will be doubled when they are joined next month by U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin.

NASA's Sunita Williams took over command at the station Saturday from Padalka, becoming the second woman in history to do so. Williams, veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide of Japan are due to return to Earth in the middle of November.

Padalka, who piloted the Soyuz craft back to Earth, was the first to be pulled out of the capsule, which rolled onto its side after coming down softly in the flat Kazakh countryside some 85 kilometers (50 miles) north of the town of Arkalyk.

Upon their return, astronauts are typically lifted onto reclining chairs to ensure comfortable acclimatization after months of living in gravity-free conditions.

Looking relaxed and smiling broadly while sipping a mug of tea and basking in the mild sunny conditions, Padalka waved at cameras that descended on the site soon almost immediately after landing.

"We honestly could not have asked for better weather out here today. The temperature's really good (and) the crew is obviously enjoying this weather," NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said in an online link-up from the landing site. "I have never seen the amount of clarity we had today."

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