Russian space capsule with 3 aboard lands

June 3, 2010 11:30:40 AM PDT
MOSCOW (AP) - A Russian Soyuz capsule carrying three astronauts back from a five-month mission on the International Space Station landed early Wednesday in the steppes of Kazakhstan. Russian Oleg Kotov, American Timothy Creamer and Soichi Noguchi of Japan, who had been aboard the orbiting laboratory since late December, appeared cheerful and healthy in a video feed from the landing site.

After being removed from the capsule still strapped in their seats, they smiled and gave thumbs-up signs, moving a bit slowly as they readapted to gravity after 163 days in space.

Doctors and nurses checked their pulses as they sat in a balmy breeze and munched the apples traditionally given to space travelers returning to Kazakhstan.

The capsule, slowed by parachutes as it approached the ground, landed on its side, which sometimes happens with Soyuz landings, but otherwise there were no problems reported in the 3 1/2-hour trip from the ISS.

Their departure leaves three astronauts aboard the space station - Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko and American Tracy Caldwell Dyson. NASA's Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker and Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin are to join them after blasting off from Russia's manned-space launch facility in Kazakhstan on June 16.

Kotov handed over command of the ISS to Skvortsov as the departing astronauts entered the Soyuz. In video shown by NASA, one of the Russians exclaimed "Give big greetings to the Earth" as Kotov squeezed through the hatch.

From the landing site, the astronauts were to be flown by helicopter to the northeastern Kazakh city of Karaganda for a welcoming ceremony. Afterwards, Kotov was to be taken to Moscow while Creamer and Noguchi were to be flown to NASA facilities in Houston.

The first space station crew arrived in 2000, two years after the first part was launched.

Reliance on the Soyuz spacecraft will increase over the next few years with only two launches left for U.S. space shuttles before the fleet is retired. That will leave NASA without its own means to send astronauts into space for the first time in half a century.

During their time in space, the newly returned crew worked on outfitting the space station and conducting an array of experiments in biology and biotechnology and physical and materials sciences.