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‘Fresh Air Feels Good,’ Says Returning Astronaut Had 4 Difficult Months Aboard Russian Station

Surprising even himself, NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger bounded off space shuttle Atlantis on Saturday after four difficult and sometimes dangerous months aboard Russia’s aging Mir station.

“I felt strong and I still feel physically strong,” the doctor and avid runner said six hours after returning to Earth.

“It’s amazing to me. I really thought it would be a lot tougher.”

Linenger stood next to his pregnant wife, Kathryn, who sat in a stuffed armchair and held their 18-month-old son, John. The astronaut even picked up the boy for a family photo.

“You’re a heavy boy,” he cooed. “Mama stay close.”

Linenger felt good throughout the ride back from orbit. He whooped with glee as Atlantis landed, swerved on the gusty runway and then rolled to a safe stop. Landing was delayed 1-1/2 hours by low clouds.

NASA chief Daniel Goldin greeted Linenger upon touchdown with a dozen yellow and purple tulips, which the astronaut promptly gave to his wife.

Linenger had requested the flowers as a present for his wife, whom he hadn’t seen since January.

Goldin also gave Linenger a gift for the astronaut’s son, a teddy bear dressed in a NASA T-shirt, and a rattle for the baby due in late June.

Linenger’s Mir mission was, by far, the toughest space station stint ever for an American.

The 42-year-old astronaut almost had to evacuate the 11-year-old outpost in February because of a fire. He was forced to rely on an unreliable backup system to produce oxygen after both main generators broke in March.

And he had to endure temperatures in the 90s, high humidity and antifreeze fumes in April because of cooling-system leaks.

Linenger couldn’t wait to enjoy the lasagna dinner awaiting him at Kennedy Space Center. He’d already savored the Florida breeze.

“I’ll tell you man, just fresh air feels good and the breeze in my face,” he said.

“I mean, there are just a lot of basic things that are nice about Planet Earth that I’m looking forward to re-experiencing.”