Smooth landing for space capsule
ARKALYK, Kazakhstan -- A Soyuz space capsule carrying an American, a Russian and a Spaniard to Earth from the International Space Station landed smoothly and on target in Kazakhstan on Tuesday.
The 3 1/2-hour trip to Earth was only the second time that a U.S. astronaut has come home in a Russian craft and landed on foreign soil. Since the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia in February put NASA manned flights on hold, the Russian Soyuz capsules have been the linchpin of the station program.
American Ed Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, who flew to the space station nearly six months ago in the same Soyuz, and Spaniard Pedro Duque, who arrived at the station eight days ago on a different capsule, emerged smiling and appeared healthy.
"Everything went great. We were very fortunate. It was as smooth a landing as could have been hoped for," said Gen. Vladimir Popov, who heads the team responsible for Russia's space search and rescue operations.
NASA spokesman Ron Navias agreed. "It was a dream landing. It is almost as if they hit the X-mark on the ground," he said.
The operation was marred only by the inadvertent pushing of a button by one of the space capsule occupants during the undocking, which caused the space station to rotate 25 degrees, and it required a large expenditure of fuel to correct the alignment, Russian media reported. Vladimir Solovyov, the chief of Mission Control outside Moscow, said there was "some deviation but we quickly fixed it."
Bad weather in the Kazakh capital, Astana, forced helicopters carrying the crew, officials and journalists to briefly turn back to the landing site near Arkalyk. The crew arrived late Tuesday in Moscow.
Duque was presented with an apple, the symbol of Kazakhstan, after the landing. Malenchenko received tea. All three space travelers appeared tired but happy.
"It is great to be back home. The landing went just fine," Lu said, smiling.
The Spaniard, speaking Russian, said the landing "was very soft, almost like training," adding that he would have loved to have stayed in space longer.
Space officials were pleased to have avoided the wild ride of the last Soyuz descent in May, which ended with the American and Russian crew going some 250 miles off-course due to a computer error.
Russian aerospace engineers had cited only a slim chance that this crew would suffer from the same computer malfunction that sent the station's previous inhabitants on such a steep trajectory home that their tongues rolled back in their mouths. The May landing was so far off-target that more than two gut-wrenching hours passed before rescuers knew the men were safe.
Kazakhstan, where the Russian manned space program also has its launch pad, agreed to a Russian request to close off a wider swath of airspace than previously, said Mikhail Zotov, the search and rescue spokesman.
This Soyuz also was equipped with satellite phones and a global positioning satellite system -- courtesy of NASA -- so if the crew had landed off-course and communications systems were damaged as happened in May, they would still have been able to determine and phone in their location. The equipment, however, was not needed.
The May landing rattled Russian space officials and NASA, which had sent their top administrators to Mission Control outside of Moscow to monitor the maiden return of the new model Soyuz with its first-ever U.S. and Russian crew. It came just three months after Columbia broke apart during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.
Russian aerospace engineers made minor adjustments to the Soyuz that blasted off Oct. 18, but the Soyuz that came home Tuesday already was docked in space so no changes were made.
About three hours before departure, Lu, Malenchenko and Duque bid farewell to the station's new crew, American Michael Foale and Russian Alexander Kaleri.
Malenchenko returned to Earth a married man, having wed Ekaterina Dmitriev of Houston by proxy while in space. The new bride watched video footage of the landing at Mission Control.
"Yuri is always full of energy," Dmitriev told The Associated Press just after the capsule landed. "I cannot even say how excited I am."
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Mission Control outside Moscow.