Soyuz-17 crew lands safely on Kazakh steppe

By Katia Moskvitch
Science reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
The crew participated in the final assembly of the ISS

The trio of astronauts have returned safely to Earth in a Russian Soyuz-17 capsule after spending nearly half a year at the International Space Station (ISS).

The craft carrying Russia's Oleg Kotov, Nasa's Timothy Creamer and Japan's Soichi Noguchi landed as planned at 0325 GMT on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

While in space, the crew took part in the final assembly of the ISS.

The Soyuz-17 undocked from the station's Zvezda module at 0004 GMT.

"There has been a soft landing," said an announcer at mission control, just outside Moscow, drawing a round of applause from people in the centre.

Russian recovery teams met the cosmonauts on the steppe near the town of Zhezkazgan.

They carried the crewmen out of the ship and put them into armchairs. It will take some time for the astronauts to adjust to gravity after 161 days in orbit.

Once out of the capsule, Commander Kotov waved to the media and to the medics on the site.

Landing 'a success'

Commenting on the landing, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, Anatoly Perminov called the latest Soyuz arrivals "a success".

Image caption,
Soon, the Soyuz ships will be the only way to get to the ISS

"Recently, all the touchdowns have not just been successful but with a high-precision landing and most importantly, excellent health [of the crew]," he said.

"You see, they are already eating apples," he added, referring to television images showing Mr Noguchi chewing an apple.

Cdr Kotov will now head back to Star City, just outside Moscow, to carry on with routine training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.

Mr Creamer and Mr Noguchi will return to Nasa Johnson Space Centre in Houston, US on Wednesday.

With Cdr Kotov back on Earth, Expedition 24 Commander Alexander Skvortsov is now leading the station, working together with flight engineers Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Mikhail Kornienko.

Half a year in space

Cdr Kotov and his team blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 21 December last year.

During nearly six months in space, they worked on the ISS alongside three shuttle crews that delivered a new Nasa room and seven-window observation deck to the station and installed the Russian Rassvet module.

Before the crew left for home, Mr Creamer said that, though he would certainly miss the station, there were some things he was really looking forward to.

"Specifically, I'd really like to drink something not from a straw and have food stay on the plate for a change," he said.

The 16-nation ISS has been under construction for over a decade. Cdr Kotov's expedition was the 22nd mission sent into orbit to work on the $100 bn station.

The Russian Soyuz spaceships will soon be the only way for astronauts to get to the ISS and back - after Nasa retires its shuttle fleet at the end of 2010.

Another Soyuz will take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on 16 June with two US astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut on board.

Cdr Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineers Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker will join Russians Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko and American Tracy Caldwell Dyson at the ISS.

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