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Space Station Crew Returns Home

A Russian space capsule carrying an Italian, a Russian and an American hurtled safely home to Earth from the International Space Station on Monday, landing softly on the marshy Central Asian steppes in the early morning darkness.

Search-and-rescue helicopters spotted the capsule floating under a parachute toward its designated arrival site about 56 miles north of the Kazakh town of Arkalyk. The TMA-5 capsule then landed upright in the slush less than 3½ hours after undocking from the orbiting space station, where a new crew stayed behind to prepare to welcome the first space shuttle flight after a two-year hiatus.

Russia's space program has been the only way of getting astronauts to the station since the Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, sparking a suspension of shuttle flights. NASA is hoping to restart shuttle flights sometime next month.

"We have spent so much time as an organization and as an agency coming together ... (to) make sure that nothing like that happens again," Dean Acosta, the head of NASA public affairs, told Associated Press Television News while referring to the Columbia disaster. "Again, we are very optimistic that we will be able ... to get the shuttle back where it needs to be — which is up in space."

State television showed footage of rescue workers pulling Italian Roberto Vittori, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao from the capsule after the landing. A seated and smiling Sharipov later wore a tall, white felt hat and posed for cameras in his first moments back on Earth.

"We're pretty excited to come home," Chiao told CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood last week. "It's a fantastic mission, six-and-a-half months, it's the first long-duration mission for both of us. For me personally, it's been wonderful but I am anxious to get back and see my wife and family and friends and to be in nature again."

Said Sharipov, "For me, it's been a great flight as well. It was a great adventure, I had a lot of interesting work and I am very satisfied that I was given an opportunity to be able to work on board the international space station."

The crew was whisked to a mobile hospital for a quick checkup and then flew to Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside of Moscow. The exhausted crew members waved and grinned as they tentatively made their way down the plane's stairs.

A cheering crowd greeted them in Star City and handed the crew bread and salt, the traditional Russian welcome offering. Those on hand to celebrate included the wives of all three men and Vittori's 5-month-old son, Enrico.

Vittori, a European Space Agency astronaut, spent eight days on the station, while Sharipov and Chiao had been on the orbiting lab since October. Russian Mission Control said Sharipov reported that the crew felt fine.

Despite one to two hours of exercise per day, Chiao and Sharipov will face about a month of intense physical therapy to help them readjust to the unfamiliar pull of Earth's gravity, reports Harwood.

Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, one of the most experienced space fliers in the world, said "it's not as hard as some people imagine" as long as the returning crew takes it easy and doesn't "rush too much" trying to get back to normal.

Remaining behind on the station for a six-month mission were Krikalev and American astronaut John Phillips.

They face a busy month of work to ready the station for the arrival of the shuttle Discovery, scheduled for launch May 22 from the Kennedy Space Center. The goal of the first post-Columbia shuttle mission is to deliver a new gyroscope and tons of equipment and supplies as NASA restarts station assembly after a hiatus of nearly two-and-a-half years.

The TMA-5 undocked at 10:44 p.m. Moscow time (4:44 p.m. EDT), after a four-minute delay caused by problems with the hermetic seals on Vittori's spacesuit, Mission Control officials said. The capsule entered the atmosphere about three hours later, and its parachute opened 15 minutes before the scheduled landing time of 2:07 a.m. Moscow time (10:07 p.m. EDT Sunday).

Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said that even after the shuttle resumes flying, Russian Soyuz spacecraft will continue to travel to and from the station about twice a year because they will serve as escape vehicles.

CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for nearly 20 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.