Thursday, March 12, 2015

Space station crew touchdown safely in foggy Kazakhstan

Russian Soyuz craft descends to a March 12 landing with a crew of three. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An American and two Russians touched down with a thud upon the snow-covered desert of central Kazakhstan on Thursday after spending 167 days living and working aboard the International Space Station.

Dense fog over the landing site delayed official confirmation of the spacecraft's landing for six minutes. Meanwhile, recovery crews were racing to locate the craft and relay word back to mission control in Moscow.

Outgoing space station commander and NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, and cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova returned to Earth aboard the same the Soyuz spacecraft in which they launched aboard last September 26.The space trio completed over 2,600 orbits of their home planet having traveled 70.7 million miles.

Wilmore departed the station just a week following the completion of three spacewalks with fellow astronaut Terry W. Virts. Virts assumed command of the space station from Wilmore during a traditional ceremony on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Serova became the first Russian woman to board the orbital complex during her flight -- only the fourth Russian female to ever fly in space.

The crew's arrival home began three hours earlier with a flawless undocking from the outpost's Poisk module at 6:44 p.m., as the two spacecraft soared 257 miles above northern Mongolia. The international trio left behind the station's new Expedition 43 crew members of Virts, Italian Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian Anton Shkaplerov.

Minutes following the departure, Virts rang the station's naval bell and radioed, "Soyuz TMA-14M departing". The new station commander then radioed the free-flying Soyuz, "To the crew of Soyuz TMA-14M, soft landing guys, and we will see you on Earth in a few months."

As the Soyuz sailed for one final Earth orbit on the ocean of space, Samokutyaev aligned the craft for it's nearly five minute burn at 9:16 p.m. to drop them out of orbit. Twenty minutes after the burn, pyrotechnical explosives separated the three section Soyuz allowing the crew section to move away in time for the 2,500-degree Fahrenheit fiery re-entry three minutes later.

Samokutyaev guided the Russian launched Soyuz spacecraft down to a pinpoint landing at 10:07 p.m. EDT on Wednesday (8:07 a.m. local time, Thursday), about 65 miles southeast of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. As the Soyuz came to a stop on the snow laden region 26 minutes after sunrise, Russian MI-8 military helicopters and vehicles began racing toward the tired space crew.
Up next is the March 27 Soyuz TMA-15M launch with American Scott Kelly and Russian's Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka. Both Kelly and Kornienko will spend a full year aboard the space station gathering bio-medical information on themselves to test the effects of space and microgravity on the human body.

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