CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An American and two Russians returned to Earth on Thursday completing their 167 day stay aboard the International Space Station with a pinpoint landing on the desert region of central Kazakhstan.
NASA astronaut Steve Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsuv and Oleg Artemyev guided their Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft to a touchdown at 10:23 p.m. EDT (8:23 a.m. Thursday, local time) on Wednesday.
The smooth landing concluded a spaceflight which began with a Soyuz thruster failure minutes after arriving in orbit forcing the crew to limp into a higher orbit over a two day period which trailed the space station.
Out going station commander Swanson, Skvortsuv and Artemyev said their farewells to fellow crew mates American Reid Wiseman, German Alexander Gerst and Expedition 41 commander Russian Max Suraev before entering their Soyuz and closing the hatches a few hours prior to undocking.
As an orbital sun rise began, the Soyuz craft separated from the station's Poisk module at 7:01 p.m., and slowly began moving out to a distance of a few hundred feet before circling around the station and departing.
"Goodbye ISS and so long station," radioed Soyuz commander Skvortsuv to his former home in space five minutes following the undocking.
Two Earth orbits later, Skvortsuv then maneuvered the Soyuz to a proper attitude to allow a section of the Soyuz to separate prior to leaving orbit with an engine firing at 9:31 p.m.
The crew made 2,704 trips around the Earth and traveled 71.7 million miles since their launch in March.
A new space trio is scheduled to launch to the orbiting laboratory in two weeks. NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore and cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova will lift-off inside their TMA-14M from Baikonur Cosmodrome on September 25 at 4:25 p.m., and will arrive at the station five and one-half hours later for docking.
Serova will become only the fourth Russian female to travel into space and the first to spend a long duration stay aboard the space station.
(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)