Thursday, June 11, 2015

Record setting space flight touches down in Kazakhstan

An American, Russian and Italy's first female astronaut safely returned to Earth on Thursday following a one month delay which gave the crew a record setting extended spaceflight.

Soyuz commander Anton Shkaplerov of Russia, NASA astronaut Terry W. Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti of European Space Agency undocked their Soyuz TMA-15M craft from the International Space Station and steered it to a pinpoint landing in central Kazakhstan. The space trios returned capped a 200-day space voyage which covered 84.2 million miles.

The crew's departure was delayed following the April 28 malfunction of an unmanned Russian Progress supply craft after reaching orbit en route to dock with the space station. "Their return date was delayed four weeks to allow Russia to investigate the cause of the loss of the unpiloted Progress 59 cargo ship in late April," NASA spokesperson Dan Huot said.

The delay allowed Cristoforetti to become the new record holder with the most time in space by a female on a single spaceflight. The Italian astronaut also now holds the record for the longest spaceflight by a European astronaut.

With Shkaplerov at the controls of the Soyuz craft, the departing crew undocked on time at 6:20 a.m. EDT, from their home in space for the last 199 days. Two minutes later, Soyuz began a series of separation burns to guide the craft toward its proper attitude for reentry.

As the Soyuz sailed upon the ocean of space 12 Km away from the orbital outpost, comical chatter between the crew members broke the tension as they strapped into their seats. Looking out the Soyuz windows, Virts pointed out to Cristoforetti they were passing high over Easter and Christmas Islands, and wondering aloud if there is a "Labor Day or Columbus Day Island" too?

As the crew raced a line of thunderstorms near their landing site in central Kazakhstan, the Soyuz was split into three sections with the crew in the descent module. Minutes later, the module then began its firery reentry back into the Earth's atmosphere and protecting its crew from temperatures of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit.

As eight Russian MI8 helicopters flew around the landing site, the Soyuz touched down about 93 miles southeast of Jezkazgan at 9:44 a.m. "It was a text book homecoming for the Soyuz" crew," NASA spokesperson Rob Navis commented.

Fifteen minutes later and with the Sun setting on the desert landscape, ground technicians placed a support ladder around the craft and began to open the hatch to begin extracting the crew. Shkaplerov left the Soyuz in great spirits followed by Cristoforetti and Virts.

The on-time landing occurred 48-hours following an unplanned thruster firing by the Soyuz engines causing the space station to shift into a new orientation. "Thrusters on a Soyuz spacecraft inadvertently fired Tuesday morning momentarily changing the station’s orientation," NASA spokesperson Mark Garcia explained on Wednesday. "Russian flight controllers quickly corrected the situation."

The next space station crew will lift-off no earlier than July 23 to join the orbiting outpost's current three person crew of NASA's Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and station commander Gennady Padalka, both Russian cosmonauts. Kelly and Kornienko are 76 days into their historic year in space mission, and are scheduled to land in Mid-March.

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