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3 return to Earth safely in Soyuz

With the shuttle fleet grounded, NASA astronauts make their first landing in the cramped Russian space craft.

By Associated Press,
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 4, 2003

ASTANA, Kazakhstan - In a historic first for NASA, a Russian capsule carrying American and Russian astronauts who spent nearly half a year aboard the international space station landed in the remote steppes of Central Asia this morning.

As the Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft parachuted through the sky and thumped onto the ground, Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit became the first NASA astronauts to return in a foreign spacecraft - and to foreign soil. Guiding them home was their Russian crewmate, Nikolai Budarin.

It was a tenser than usual end to a mission for NASA, the American space agency, not only because of the change in venue prompted by the Columbia disaster, but because this new Soyuz model had never gone through a descent before. Also nagging at the back of everyone's minds was the fact that Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin were making the first re-entry since the shuttle was destroyed over Texas on Feb. 1 and its seven astronauts were killed.

NASA pulled out all the medical stops for the landing, just in case the three returning space station residents ended up injured. The two NASA flight surgeons on the recovery team took loads of medical supplies aboard helicopters that were transporting them from the Kazakh capital, Astana, to the touchdown spot 250 miles to the southwest.

Because of Columbia, "the eyes of the American public and Congress and everyone are going to be on this landing," said Dr. J.D. Polk, a flight surgeon with a specialty in emergency medicine. "We just don't have any acceptance for any risk right now."

Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin were supposed to return to Earth in a much roomier and smoother space shuttle, but switched to the Russian Soyuz following the Columbia disaster and the grounding of the NASA fleet. Almost two extra months were added to their mission, for a total of 51/2 months, to give their replacements enough time to arrive aboard a Soyuz.

American Edward Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko checked in to the international space station last week for a six-month stay that promises to be a challenge, given the reduction in crew size to conserve supplies until shuttle flights resume.

But handing over command to Malenchenko before floating into the Soyuz for the flight home, Bowersox told the new crewmen, "You guys have to be the two luckiest guys who come from planet Earth today. Over the next six months you get to live aboard this beautiful ship."

He added, "Yuri, I'm ready to be relieved."

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe wished both crews good luck and told the returning trio to "put in your order for how you want your steaks done so we can have them ready for when you arrive."

In earlier comments broadcast on Russian television Saturday, Budarin played down the risk of returning in a Soyuz model that has not landed before, saying the differences from the previous model were "only modifications."

"I have made two descents in a Soyuz and there were no problems at all, and I think there won't be any problems this time," he said, bobbing slowly up and down as he spoke.

Bowersox, speaking Russian, said the mission aboard the station went well. "We carried out everything we intended to, but most important is that we worked well together as an international crew," he said.

About 90 minutes into the flight, Russia's astronaut training center chief Pyotr Klimuk spoke to the Soyuz crew from mission control, wishing them success and assuring them everything was ready for their touchdown. A little less than an hour before the scheduled touchdown, the capsule was cued to come out of orbit, and a half-hour later it shed some equipment to ease its re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Because the Soyuz is so cramped, Bowersox and his crewmates could bring back very little, such as a few small personal items, film, water and other environmental samples, and a few science experiments.

All their other belongings from 161 days in space were left behind in bags on the station to await a home delivery by the next visiting shuttle - whenever that is. The packed stash included Pettit's didgeridoo, an Australian Aboriginal horn that he took up in November to entertain his 21/2-year-old twin sons during video conferences.

The wives of Bowersox and Pettit, along with the twins, traveled from Houston to Russia for what was sure to be an emotional reunion.

Jim Newman, an astronaut in charge of NASA's human spaceflight program in Russia, expects Bowersox and Pettit will have a difficult time adjusting to the new space reality, as everyone has.

"It's not the space program that we had hoped because of the tragedy," Newman said, "but we're certainly ready for whatever comes."

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