A Russian capsule safely returned two astronauts and a cosmonaut from the international space station on Sunday, but the landing, nearly 300 miles off target, triggered a nerve-racking two-hour search in the steppes of Central Asia.
The three men were finally spotted in the vast, brown, barren stretches of Kazakhstan by a recovery plane and waved to show they were fine. Helicopters arrived for them an hour or two later.
"I was just happy we were down, that everything was safe," astronaut Kenneth Bowersox told The Associated Press while flying back to cosmonaut headquarters at Star City outside Moscow. "It was the most beautiful dirt I've ever seen."
It was a dramatic end to a 5 1/2-month space station mission for Bowersox, who served as the commander, astronaut Donald Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin.
Because it was the first manned space landing since the Columbia Shuttle disaster and the first touchdown by NASA astronauts in a foreign spacecraft in a foreign land, tension was running high. It shot up when nothing was heard from the crew following its last radio call 16 minutes before touchdown. By coincidence, that was the same time communication ceased with the Columbia astronauts over Texas on Feb. 1.
What kept NASA officials from becoming too frightened was the fact that the Soyuz crew had just reported the main parachute opened normally and the most brutal part of atmospheric re-entry was over. Columbia was ripped apart after the scorching heat of re-entry penetrated its damaged left wing; all seven astronauts were killed.
Because of that accident and the indefinite grounding of NASA's shuttle fleet, the space station residents had no choice but to return on the Soyuz that had been docked as a lifeboat for six months. They rocketed into orbit last November aboard the Shuttle Endeavour and were supposed to return on Atlantis in March.
Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin knew during re-entry that they were coming in steep and faced high gravity forces, or G loads. When they saw the computer indicate they would miss their landing target, "our eyes kind of went like this," Bowersox said, pretending to widen his eyes with his hands.
"But honestly it wasn't frightening," he said. "It was just, I'll call it an interesting test flight experience."
This latest Soyuz model had never descended from orbit before — until Sunday.
The spacemen experienced more than 8 G's on the way down, twice the usual amount, but were not injured. A half-hour after landing, they popped open the hatch and crawled out of the capsule, which had dragged 40 feet and ended up on its side, its antennas smashed into the ground. Pettit had a bad case of motion sickness, common among astronauts returning from their first spaceflight, especially a long one.
No one was there to greet them. But after 161 days in space, they did not mind a little time to themselves to get their land legs back — and to savor the scenery.
"We could smell the dirt. We could smell the grass," Bowersox said. "It was fantastic, and also the smell of the pyrotechnic bolts that open the parachute cover and open the antennas, that smoke came in. It was a gorgeous smell."
They waited two hours until the recovery plane passed overhead and another two hours before two helicopters arrived from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Russian space agency's main launch site. Two more hours passed before any NASA personnel got to them — eight had been en route, but six were sent back in helicopters to the Kazakh capital Astana because they were running low on fuel.
NASA's lead flight surgeon and an astronaut assigned to a space station crew this fall were the only Americans who made it to the landing site.
Dr. Mike Duncan was enthralled by the sight of a capsule surrounded by drooped parachutes. It was the first time in 28 years that NASA astronauts returned to Earth in a capsule and the first time ever that NASA astronauts landed in a capsule on the ground — they'd always touched down at sea before that.
"I would have loved to have been able to spend more time just absorbing the moment and seeing the vehicle, but there wasn't time," Duncan said. "You can't be a tourist," he added with a laugh.
By the time the former station residents were flown by helicopter to Astana, about 50 U.S. and Russian space officials and Kazakh dignitaries were waiting for them. Three girls dressed in green and violet traditional Kazakh costumes handed a bouquet of red roses to Bowersox and Budarin as they climbed the steps into the plane for the ride to Star City — the last leg of their full-day journey. Pettit had to be helped on board.
Each spaceman was applauded as he entered the plane, and was embraced by almost everyone on board. Bob Cabana, director of flight crew operations for NASA, was moved to tears when he saw the crew. He had sweated through the two hours of uncertainty, and was disappointed he was not able to reach the landing site.
Cabana said the Russian space agency was determined to learn why the capsule undershot its landing target. A commission was immediately established to investigate the matter, space agency chief Yuri Koptev said.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe noted that without the Russians and their Soyuz spacecraft, the station would have had to be abandoned until shuttle flights resumed.
"At the time we needed them most, Russia, our partners, have excelled," O'Keefe said. "The international space station goes on because of their commitment.
O'Keefe and Koptev gathered at Star City for the crew's homecoming, along with the wives of all three spacemen.
Micki Pettit rushed into the plane to embrace her husband, feeling a little better but still shaky. Their 2 1/2-year-old twin boys got to see their father soon afterward.
Bowersox's wife, Annie, left their three sons at home in Houston because of school. He and Pettit will remain in Star City for two weeks to recuperate from the lingering effects of weightlessness, mostly weakened muscles and bones and imbalance.
Throughout the day, Bowersox said he managed to "choke back the tears."
"But I know when I'm going to cry is when I hug my kids."
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