A Russian Soyuz capsule has landed safely in Kazakhstan, bringing back three astronauts after nearly six months on the International Space Station (ISS) in the first manned landing since Nasa retired its space shuttles in July.
“The landing was great. Everything’s good,” said Volkov, flashing a thumbs-up signal on exit from the Soyuz TMA-02 capsule, blackened by the extreme temperatures on re-entry to the atmosphere.
The closure of Nasa’s shuttle programme means Russian spaceships are the only way to ferry goods and crews to and from the ISS – which is shared by 16 nations – until commercial firms develop the ability to transport crews.
Russia hopes the textbook landing will help to restore confidence in its space programme after the August crash of an unmanned Russian cargo flight led to the suspension of manned space missions.
The returning crew have been replaced in orbit by Nasa’s Daniel Burbank and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin, whose successful launch last week allayed fears that the station would be left empty for the first time in a decade.
The troubles have left the space station with half the usual handover time. The new crew had only six days with the outgoing astronauts to get up to speed on life in space and the station’s operations.
Nasa said the Soyuz capsule had landed on its side, not unusual in windy conditions, about 55 miles (90km) north of the town of Arkalyk.
The three-man crew had spent 167 days in space and their return to Earth took about three and a half hours.
Volkov is a second-generation cosmonaut following in the footsteps of his father. Nasa called him “a rising star in the cosmonaut corps”.
Fossum, second to emerge from the capsule, called his loved ones by satellite phone from the landing site. Furukawa, a 47-year-old professional surgeon, was last to emerge. An assistant mopped sweat from his brow.
After medical checks in a tent on site, the returning crew were being taken by helicopter to the city of Kostanai in northern Kazakhstan.
The ISS will regain full six-person occupancy with the late December launch of US astronaut Don Pettit, cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Andre Kuipers of the European Space Agency.