ARKALYK, Kazakhstan - A Soyuz capsule carrying a U.S.-Russian crew back to Earth following six months at the international space station hurtled through the Earth's atmosphere and landed safely and on target in Kazakhstan Saturday evening.
The bell-shaped Soyuz TMA-4, carrying Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka 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 early Sunday local time.
Russian and U.S. officials had waited alongside search helicopter crews for the first glimpse of the Russian Soyuz. It had undocked from the space station some three hours earlier and made two orbits around Earth. Other Russian rescue teams had been in position, ready to move in by air and off-road convoys if necessary.
At Mission Control outside Moscow, where Russian and American space officials - including NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe - gathered, applause broke out at news of the landing. The Soyuz crew had been in contact with helicopter crews as they made their final approach and reported that all were feeling well, Mission Control said.
Padalka and Fincke had been in space since April. Seated in the Soyuz alongside them was Cosmonaut Yuri Shargin, who had spent eight days on the space station. 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.
"We'll be home soon," Padalka's American partner, Mike Fincke, said in Russian.
"And I wanted to say to the entire team: We worked really hard together. This is a great adventure. We were successful only because we were working together," he continued in English.
Shortly after their landing, search crew members helped the three men out of the capsule. They sat in chairs with hot drinks while awaiting brief medical checks in a nearby tent.
Fincke, looking elated, spoke by satellite phone with his family. "Hi, baby," he said.
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.
The craft, the workhorse of Russia's cash-strapped space program, boasts a stellar safety record. But minor glitches occur from time to time. Earlier this month, the crew arriving at the space station had to turn off autopilot and manually connect the Soyuz to the docking point after an unidentified problem resulted in the craft approaching the station at a dangerously high speed.
In May 2003, the first time American astronauts returned on the Soyuz, a computer malfunction sent the crew on a dive so steep that the astronauts' tongues rolled back in their mouths. The crew landed so far off-target that more than two hours passed before rescuers knew the men were safe.
Now the Soyuz is outfitted with satellite phones and a global positioning satellite system. Russia also requests that the ex-Soviet republic of Kazakhstan close a large area of its airspace before the scheduled landing.
After landing, the crew is usually given a quick medical checkup before beginning the journey back to Moscow's Star City, the home-base of Russia's space program. The crew was due to arrive in Star City shortly after 2 a.m. EDT Sunday.
While in space, Padalka and Fincke carried out four space walks, including one crucial mission to repair a gyroscope that orientates the station in space.
"We are very satisfied that we are leaving the station in good condition for the guys," Padalka was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
NASA has said that its shuttles should be flying again by early summer.