Soyuz commander Oleg Kononenko is the first to emerge from the 29S mission capsule early Sunday. He was soon joined on the plains of Kazakhstan by Andre Kuipers and Don Pettit. Photo Credit: NASA TV
The 29 Soyuz mission spacecraft carrying three U.S., Russian and European astronauts descended to a landing in remote Kazakhstan early Sunday, closing out a 193-day mission to the International Space Station that included the first visit by a U.S. commercial re-supply craft.
The Soyuz capsule carrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Don Pettit and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers was greeted by helicopter-borne Russian recovery teams shortly after it touched down under parachute south of Zhezkaghan at 4:14 a.m., EDT, or 2:14 p.m., local time.
Pettit, Kononenko and Kuipers appeared to be in good shape as they were assisted from their capsule by team members to a medical field tent for a series of health checks. They were to be flown aboard separate helicopters to Karaganda for a landing ceremony. There, they will part company, with Pettit and Kuipers headed for Houston, Tex., home of NASA's Johnson Space Center, aboard a NASA jet. Kononenko will be flown to Star City, Russia.
The fliers undocked from the station's Rassvet berthing port in their Soyuz TMA-O3M spacecraft at 12:48 a.m., EDT, ending the 31st expedition to the orbiting science lab since crewed operations began in late 2000. As the crew transport backed away from the station's Russian segment, Kononenko halted, then yawed the motion for several seconds for a test of the capsule's digital autopilot.
Russia's Soyuz TMA-03M capsule drifts to a successful landing in Kazakhstan early Sunday. Image Credit: Roscosmos
Their 6.5 months aboard the station featured the arrival of the first U. S. commercial re-supply mission. As the SpaceX Dragon capsule rendezvoused with the orbital outpost in May, Pettit guided Canadarm2 through the track and capture steps to latch onto and berth the supply craft at the station's U. S. segment with assistance from Kuipers and Acaba.
"I think you could call it a stressful day at the office. It was something we practiced for 27 different ways," recalled Pettit in a news media interview, two days days before the Soyuz departure.
"In reality, it went very smoothly," added Kuipers. "So, it was a very great moment for everybody."
However, Pettit, Kononenko and Kuipers focused most of their energies on research in the fields of human health, physics, biology, materials properties, Earth observations, robotics and astrophysics. Their multi-national science agenda included more than 200 individual on going experiments.
"We are doing a lot of fascinating science," said Pettit. "Some people might call it boring, science in the process of being made is not necessarily exciting."
Joe Acaba, Sergei Revin and ISS Commander Gennady Padalka, pictured left to right, assist with the hatch closing of the Soyuz TMA-03M capsule before the transport undocks from the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA photo
With the departure of the 29 Soyuz crew, command of the orbiting science lab shifted from Kononenko to fellow Russian Gennady Padalka, the first space flier to take charge of the station for a third time. Padalka, cosmonaut Sergei Revin and NASA astronaut Joe Acaba reached the space station in mid-May.
Six crew station operations for Expedition 32 are scheduled to resume on July 17, when the 31 Soyuz mission spacecraft docks, delivering NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Russian Yuri Malenchenko and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.