A Russian Soyuz capsule landed on the Kazakh steppe yesterday, delivering a trio of astronauts from a four-month stint on the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule, carrying US astronaut Joseph Acaba and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin, parachuted through a blue sky and touched down in a cloud of dust as its soft landing engines ignited at 8:53am.
“Bull’s eye landing,” a NASA TV commentator said as the capsule lay on its side in the Kazakh steppe circled overhead by approaching search-and-recovery helicopters.
Veteran mission commander Padalka, who has logged 711 days in orbit to make him the world’s fourth-most experienced astronaut, was the first out of the cramped descent capsule.
“I feel great,” said Padalka, wrapped in a blue blanket, sipping hot tea and smiling, enjoying the balmy steppe air under the early morning sunlight as medical personnel wiped sweat from his brow.
“This was my fourth flight, and so it is nothing of the extraordinary already,” he said, looking relaxed.
During his stay at the orbital station, Padalka conducted a six-hour spacewalk on Aug. 20 to relocate a crane, launch a small science satellite and install micrometeoroid shields on the space station’s Zvezda command module.
He and fellow crew members Acaba and Revin were carried over to autograph the Soyuz, scorched black by re-entry, to be displayed in a Russian provincial museum.
The crew returned after spending 123 days in orbit aboard the ISS, a US$100 billion research complex involving 15 countries and orbiting 385 km above Earth.
The mission was shorter than the usual six months after launch delays in order to ready a new spaceship to replace the initial Soyuz craft, which cracked during pressure tests.
Moscow hopes yesterday’s smooth landing will help to ease concerns over relying solely on Russia to service the ISS following a string of recent mishaps in its space program.
“Everything is to cheer today,” Russian Federal Space Agence General Director Vladimir Popovkin told reporters at Mission Control in Moscow.
Three other ISS crew members — veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide — remain in orbit. They are scheduled to be joined by another trio — Kevin Ford, Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin — to blast off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan next month.
The Soviet Union put the first satellite and the first man in space, but Russia’s space program has suffered a series of humiliating setbacks in recent months that industry veterans blame on a decade of crimped budgets and a brain drain.
Since the retirement of the US space shuttles last year, the US is dependent on Russia to fly astronauts at a costs to the nation of US$60 million per person.