Monday, May 23, 2011

Soyuz crew home safely

Cady Coleman, Paolo Nespoli and Dmitry Kondratyev concluded a memorable five-hour return to Earth with a drop through warm, blue skies to a bull's-eye touchdown in central Kazakhstan at 10:27 p.m. EDT.

The American, Italian and Russian crew members bid goodbye to the International Space Station, their home for 157 days, at 5:35 p.m., a few hours after closing the hatch.

Before flying away from the station, their Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft hovered behind it for about 30 minutes.

Nespoli climbed into a windowed habitation module normally sealed before undocking to shoot pictures and video of the shuttle Endeavour, a Russian Progress and Europe's ATV-2 vehicles docked at the fully assembled station.

No vehicle had ever docked or undocked from the station while a shuttle was present.

Thrusters fired to begin dropping the Soyuz from orbit at 9:36 p.m., and pyrotechnic devices split away its habitation and propulsion modules as planned 25 minutes later, as the spacecraft was about to enter the atmosphere and expose the crew to the effects of gravity for the first time in more than five months.

The spacecraft crossed over western Africa on its northeast trajectory toward the remote town of Dhezkazgan.

A drogue parachute deployed, followed by a main chute, and search and rescue aircraft cited the capsule well before touchdown. Soft-landing engines fired feet from touchdown to dull the impact, and the Soyuz reportedly landed upright without tipping over.

Balmy weather greeted the crew, who appeared in excellent condition after being pulled from the capsule and placed in reclining seats for medical exams. Also recovered: memory cards holding the highly anticipated images shot this evening in space.

With their expedition over, Coleman now has spent a total of 179 days in space on three flights and Nespoli has 174 on two flights. It was the first spaceflight for Kondratyev.

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