Crew safely returns to Earth after crash
Three spacemen made a safe delayed return from the International Space Station on Friday as Russia again pushed back the launch of their replacement crew because of a recent rocket crash.
Space officials said the Soyuz capsule landed on its side in the wind-swept steppes of the ex-Soviet republic of Kazakhstan at 0400 GMT.
"A bull's-eye landing for the Soyuz TMA-21," a NASA commentator said in a live video feed while Russian mission control flashed a message on its screen reading: "Landing confirmed!"
A smiling but weary commander Alexander Samokutyayev was extracted from the Soviet-designed capsule first and carried to a seat in the arms of Kazakh rescue workers under a dazzling blue sky.
He was later joined by his Russian and US team partners in making satellite telephone calls home and taking swigs from water bottles as Russian and NASA medical personnel scurried about checking their temperatures and heart rates.
The landing was aired live on NASA television and there was a brief period of alarm when the radio feed suddenly went dead a few moments before touchdown.
But mission control outside Moscow said communications between the crew and Russian commanders functioned as well as could be expected under the conditions.
"Knock on wood, but this time, everything went pretty well," a Russian mission control spokesman said by telephone.
The trio had earlier said heartfelt goodbyes to their three colleagues on board the station following an eventful mission that at one stage saw them mulling the possibility of a forced evacuation.
The Soviet-era vessel left behind a skeleton crew of three -- NASA's Michael Fossum and Russia's Sergei Volkov along with Japanese flight engineer Satoshi Furukawa -- on board the orbiter at one of the tensest times in its storied history.
Russia kicked off the $100 billion international project's construction in 1998 in the midst of a heated race with the United States for space supremacy in the early post-Soviet era.
But the programme has recently suffered an embarrassing series of setbacks that saw sensitive satellites fail to reach orbit and -- in the most dramatic accident last month -- an ISS cargo craft crash back to Earth.
The August 24 accident prompted Russia to temporarily ground a part of its Soyuz programme while it conducted emergency checks.
Mission control chief Vladimir Popovkin said the accident was caused by a sudden drop in the engine's fuel pressure. But he stressed that it still remained unclear why the fault occurred.
"We would like to find the material evidence," Interfax quoted Popovkin as saying.
Various versions of the Soyuz rocket are used to ferry both cargo ships and fresh crews to space. Its re-entry vessels remained docked to the station during missions and then used by crews to return to home.
This low-cost simplicity has been Russia's pride and has made the Soyuz especially indispensable since the July retirement of the US space shuttle programme.
NASA had been mulling the option of leaving the space station abandoned for the first time in 10 years should Roskosmos fail to solve its problems by mid-November.
The Russian agency had originally scheduled the next manned Soyuz mission for November 12 -- just days before NASA's final deadline.
But Popovkin said without explanation that his team had decided to push back the date to November 14.
This will force a quick handover of command from the team now on board as it prepares to head home on November 22. NASA rules require a quick rotation of crews because Soyuz capsules are only certified for six and a half months.
© 2011 AFP