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Astronaut Enjoys Wild Ride To Earth

Space station commander Kenneth Bowersox, looking relaxed if tired after five-and-a-half months in space and a grueling re-entry, said he and his crewmates' "eyes got very wide" when computer displays showed their Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft was going to land well off course.

Bowersox, Soyuz commander Nikolai Budarin and science officer Donald Pettit landed shortly after 10 p.m. EDT Saturday in Kazakhstan some 285 miles short of their planned target near the town of Arkylyk, southwest of the Kazak capital of Astana, reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood.

It's not the first time a Russian spacecraft has missed the mark.

In 1976, a Soyuz spacecraft came down in a freezing squall and splashed into a lake; the crew spent the night bobbing in the capsule.

Eleven years before that, two cosmonauts overshot their touchdown site by 1,200 miles and found themselves deep in a forest with hungry wolves. That's when Russian space officials decided to pack a sawed-off shotgun aboard every spacecraft.

It took Russian search crews more than two hours to locate the spacecraft and another two hours for helicopters to get support crews to the landing site. Bowersox, Budarin and Pettit, meanwhile, had opened the main hatch themselves and waved at search crews as they flew over.

The returning station crew eventually was flown back to Astana and from there to Star City, the Russian equivalent of the Johnson Space Center, for detailed medical exams and reunions with family members and friends.

Videotape broadcast on NASA's satellite television system showed Budarin and Bowersox moving about with ease, climbing down from a helicopter and then walking up a flight of runway steps to a jet airplane.

Citing medical privacy, NASA will not discuss crew health issues. But based on the ease with which a smiling Bowersox answered questions from a NASA interviewer, Pettit presumably was not seriously ill.

"It was fantastic," Bowersox said of the nerve-wracking re-entry. "For me as a test pilot, it was a really great experience to be able to do the first entry in the first of a series of (new) Soyuz vehicles. It was something I've always dreamed about, to have a first flight in a vehicle like that, and today I got my chance."

The Soyuz TMA-1 was the first in a series of upgraded Russian spacecraft equipped with improved computers, more advanced cockpit displays and larger seats to accommodate a broader cross-section of U.S. space station astronauts.

But it quickly became apparent to the crew that something was not quite right, or "nominal" in NASA-speak.

"The first thing we saw was signs in our displays that the entry was going to be off nominal," Bowersox said. "And when we saw those signs, our eyes got very wide because we truly expected a nominal entry, completely normal, about 4 Gs (of deceleration). But instead, we pulled a few more than that and the ride was a little more aggressive. But it also makes the entry a lot shorter when you do that and so before we knew it, we were on the ground, looking out the window at the dirt there in southern Kazakhstan."

Despite the rough ride, Bowersox said, "it was just a really great feeling to be back on Earth." Even so, he said he was a bit envious of the two-man caretaker crew — commander Yuri Malenchenko and Edward Lu — left behind on the international space station.

"I felt good that we had accomplished our mission as a crew, I felt that it was OK for us to leave, that Ed and Yuri were ready to take on their jobs," Bowersox said. "I was happy for them and a little bit envious that they get six months aboard that huge, gigantic, beautiful ship, the international space station.

Bowersox and Pettit plan to spend about 16 days at Star City before returning to their homes in Houston to continue physical rehabilitation. It typically takes returning space station crews a month or more to get their land legs back and even longer to completely overcome the effects of weightlessness.

"At Star City I'm looking forward to walking around, looking at the trees, smell the air, hugging my wife," Bowersox said. "Pretty soon I'll be home in America and I'll get to hug my kids and I think that will be the highlight … to get to squeeze my boys."

CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for more than 15 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.