MOSCOW (AP) — A Soyuz space capsule carrying an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts landed Saturday morning on the steppes of Kazakhstan, safely returning the three men to Earth after a 144-day mission to the International Space Station.
NASA's Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin had been scheduled to return on Friday, but the landing was postponed by a day because of bad weather.
Live footage on NASA TV showed all three men smiling as they were helped out of the capsule and into reclining chairs to begin their acclimatization to Earth's gravity.
A NASA TV commentator said only two of 12 search and rescue helicopters were allowed to land at the touchdown site because of heavy clouds and fog. So instead of being placed in an inflatable medical tent for checks, the astronauts were taken fairly quickly to one of the helicopters. The temperature at the time was well below freezing.
Space officials said the crew would be flown back to the staging site in Kazakhstan, a two-hour helicopter ride. From there, Ford would board a plane for Houston, Texas, and the Russians would be flown to Moscow.
Their four-hour return voyage began earlier Saturday when the Russian-made capsule undocked from the space station and began its slow drift away. The craft made a "flawless entry" back into the Earth's atmosphere and performed a perfect upright landing at around 9:10 a.m. local time (0310gmt), the NASA commentator said.
Three other astronauts remain at the space station. The next three-man crew is scheduled to launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome at the end of the month.