Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Station crew makes safe, cold return to Earth

Search and rescue teams have pulled three astronauts and cosmonauts from a Soyuz spacecraft after its safe touchdown early today on icy terrain in central Kazakhstan.

Russian Roman Romanenko, Belgian Frank De Winne and Canadian Bob Thirsk returned to Earth after spending 186 days on the International Space Station as members of its Expedition 20 and 21 crews.

Poor visibility, snow flurries and ice grounded eight Mi-8 helicopters normally used to deploy recovery teams.

A convoy of all-terrain vehicles reached the landing site minutes after the 2:15 a.m. touchdown.

The Soyuz, looking scorched after its less than hour-long drop from space and fiery re-entry through Earth's atmosphere, landed upright and on target about 50 miles northeast of the remote town of Arkalyk.

"The entire entry was by the book," said NASA TV commentator Rob Navias.

Romanenko, Thirsk and De Winne were pulled from the spacecraft, laid on stretchers and carried to vehicles to begin medical evaluations. De Winne (above) waved in a sign of good health despite weakness from six months in zero-gravity.

The trio launched May 27 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

They were part of the first six-person crew on the station, and the first that represented all five of the station's partner agencies: the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

The outgoing crew undocked from the station at 10:56 a.m. EST Monday.

For the next three weeks, the station will house only two crew members, American Jeff Williams (left) and Russian Maxim Suraev. It's the smallest station crew since July 2006.

A fresh crew of three is due to arrive Dec. 23.

Meanwhile, station flight directors are tracking a piece of space junk, from a Russian Cosmos satellite, that could make a close approach at 1:19 p.m. EST Tuesday.

Williams and Suraev were directed to go to sleep as planned, and told they would be awakened around 10 a.m. EST if tracking data determined that they needed to enter their Soyuz lifeboat docked at the station.

IMAGE: Attired in Russian Sokol launch and entry suits, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Frank De Winne (right), Expedition 20 flight engineer and Expedition 21 commander; cosmonaut Roman Romanenko (center) and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, both Expedition 20/21 flight engineers, take a break from training in Star City, Russia to pose for a portrait. Photo credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center.

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