ARKALYK, Kazakhstan – A Soyuz capsule carrying a U.S.-Russian crew back to Earth following six months at the international space station landed safely and on target in Kazakhstan early today. The bell-shaped Soyuz TMA-4, carrying Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Yuri Shargin and American partner Mike Fincke, touched down beneath a parachute at the targeted landing site, some 55 miles north of the town of Arkalyk, in pre-dawn darkness.
Search team members helped the three men out of the capsule. They sat in chairs, sipping hot drinks, and then underwent brief medical checks in a nearby tent before being flown to Moscow’s Star City, home of the Russian space program.
Russia’s non-reusable Soyuz has become the linchpin of the global community’s manned space program, filling in for the U.S. shuttle fleet, grounded since Columbia burned up on re-entry in February 2003.
At Mission Control outside Moscow, where Russian and American space officials – including NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe – had gathered, applause broke out at news of the landing.
The return flight “was another successful effort for a continuous presence on the international station,” said O’Keefe. “This was an exceptionally productive expedition mission.”
Padalka and Fincke had been in space since April. Shargin had arrived Oct. 16 along with the station’s new crew, Salizhan Sharipov of Russia and Leroy Chiao of the United States.
The two crews had bid each other farewell hours earlier, before the Soyuz had undocked.
“Good luck. I wish you a fortunate mission. We’ll meet you back on Earth,” Padalka told Sharipov and Chiao before entering the Soyuz and strapping himself in.
Fincke said the mission had been a “great adventure” and praised the teamwork on the space station. “We were successful only because we were working together,” he said.
Padalka and Fincke carried out four spacewalks, including one crucial mission to repair a gyroscope that orients the station in space.