ARKALYK, Kazakhstan -- A space capsule carrying a U.S.-Russian-Italian crew landed safely on the steppes of northern Kazakhstan early today, following a mission aboard the international space station.
Search-and-rescue helicopters spotted the Russian TMA-5 capsule as it floated toward its designated arrival site about 50 miles north of the Kazakh town of Arkalyk and made a soft landing, upright.
It had undocked with the orbiting station less than 3 1/2 hours earlier.
Space officials and medical staff traveled to the landing site to welcome American Leroy Chiao, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and Italian Roberto Vittori.
Mission Control said Sharipov had reported that the crew were feeling fine.
Vittori, a European Space Agency astronaut, had spent eight days on the station, while Sharipov and Chiao have been on the orbiting lab since October.
Remaining behind on the station were Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and American astronaut John Phillips, whose six-month mission is slated to include welcoming the first U.S. space shuttle flight since the Columbia shuttle disaster two years ago.
Russia's space program has been the only way of getting astronauts to the station since the Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, sparking a suspension of shuttle flights. The U.S. space agency NASA is hoping to renew shuttle flights sometime next month.
Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said that even after the shuttle resumes flying, Russian Soyuz spacecraft will continue to travel to and from the station about twice a year because they will serve as escape vehicles.
The TMA-5 undocked at 10:44 p.m. Moscow time and entered the atmosphere about three hours later. Its parachute opened 15 minutes before the scheduled landing time.
Russian space officials had hoped to avoid a repeat of the May 2003 return to Earth by the space station crew, when the Soyuz capsule went some 250 miles off course due to a computer error, prompting a frantic search over the steppes.
Russian helicopters and planes had been on call, along with a U.S. medical team, near Arkalyk. Engineers followed the capsule's journey through space on a map projected on a large screen at Russian Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, and periodically communicated with the crew.
The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Maj. Gen. Vladimir Popov, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Space Search and Rescue Department, as saying that Monday's landing could have been complicated by melted snow on the steppes.
"The soil is very moist in the landing zone," Popov was quoted as saying.
Associated Press writer Bagila Bukharbayeva contributed to this story from Russian Mission Control in Korolyov, Russia.