MOSCOW: A woman took full command of the International Space Station for only the second time in history Monday as three of her American and Russian colleagues made a safe return from the orbiting space lab to the Kazakh steppe.
The Soyuz TMA-04M capsule made a pinpoint landing with U.S. astronaut Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin aboard a vessel whose origins stretch back to the early days of Soviet space flight.
NASA television footage showed the smiling men relaxing in lounge chairs and sipping warm drinks from thermoses while medical teams checked their pulses and chatted to them about their trip.
“It’s good to be home,” a NASA official quoted Acaba as saying the moment he was pulled out of the Russian capsule to mark the formal end of his 125-day stay in space.
The crew then set what may become a new tradition by signing their names on the black Soyuz capsule in honor of their journey.
The three leave behind another trio led by new commander Suni Williams – a U.S. space veteran who has logged the most days in orbit by a woman as well as the greatest number of hours conducting space walks.
“I appreciate all the lessons learned and all the great humor that we have had up here,” Williams told outgoing commander Padalka in televised images moments before the handoff.
Williams is now in charge of a crew also comprised of Japan’s Aki Hoshide and the Russian Yury Malenchenko.
She had seen the trio off with warm hugs as they clambered on board the Soyuz through an escape hatch already dressed in their puffy white travel space suits.
The trio on board the ISS had been set to be joined by a new expedition on Oct. 17.
But Russian space officials said they may have to delay the next lift-off by about a week due to the necessary replacement of a piece of Soyuz TMA-06M on-board equipment.
“This will give us time to relax and conduct all the work properly and without any added pressure,” Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) chief Vladimir Popovkin said in televised remarks.
Russia’s once-proud space program has been beset by problems in the past two years that have seen unmanned vessels explode before reaching orbit and high-profile space exploration missions go awry.
The setbacks are a particular concern to NASA as it undergoes a transition from the phased-out Shuttle program and relies in the interim on Russia and its Soviet-era equipment for all manned trips to space.