By Raushan Nurshayeva
ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan welcomed the world's most experienced space flier and two rookie crewmates on Saturday, including Denmark's first-ever astronaut, who returned from the International Space Station with a bull's-eye parachute landing.
The descent capsule departed the space station at 2139 GMT and landed at 0051 GMT in the steppe southeast of Dzhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan.
Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, 57, the former station commander, returned from his fifth spaceflight with a record 879 days in orbit. He broke the record of six-time flier Sergei Krikalev, who has a career total 803 days in space.
Returning with Padalka were Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency, jokingly dubbed "Denmark's Gagarin" after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Aidyn Aimbetov, the third Kazakh cosmonaut, both of whom spent less than 10 days in orbit.
Several hours later the trio were brought by helicopter to the airport of Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, where Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev gave them a red-carpet reception.
"You've spent so much time in space, but you look great," Nazarbayev told Padalka.
"I congratulate you on your cosmonaut and all of us on the successful completion of our work," Padalka said.
"There are 200 states in the world, but not all of them get the luck of sending their citizens into space," Nazarbayev said. "We are one of those rare cases - and we have launched three cosmonauts already, not one."
Mogensen said the crew had "a fantastic mission" at the ISS, whose nine members represented five different nationalities at the time.
"This is a superb example of what can be achieved together when we work together across borders and boundaries," he said.
Nazarbayev later gave the crew apples - a symbol of Kazakhstan - and a plane took them to Russia's Star City.
Mogensen and Aimbetov launched with Padalka's replacement, cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, on Sept. 2.
That flight was originally to have included British soprano and aspiring space tourist Sarah Brightman. Citing family reasons, Brightman stopped training in May and relinquished her seat to Aimbetov.
Volkov remains aboard the station, along with five crewmates, including newly named commander Scott Kelly, with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.
Kelly and Kornienko this week passed the halfway point of a planned year-long stay in space, the longest tour of duty in the station’s 15-year history.
NASA and Russia are using the year-long mission to get better insight into how microgravity affects human physical and mental health and what countermeasures may mitigate any harmful effects.
In a decade, NASA intends to begin flying astronauts farther beyond the space station, a $100 billion orbiting laboratory that orbits about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. The long-term goal of the U.S. space program is a human expedition to Mars in the 2030s.
(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz in Cape Canaveral; Writing by Irene Klotz and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Larry King)