A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying commander Gennady Padalka, flight engineer Michael Barratt, and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté undocked from the International Space Station on Saturday and plunged to a successful landing in Kazakhstan early Sunday.
Descending under a big orange-and-white parachute, the Soyuz TMA-14's descent module settled to a jarring rocket-assisted touchdown at 12:32 a.m. EDT (10:32 a.m. local time) Sunday to close out a 50-minute descent from orbit. Russian recovery forces, including U.S. and Russian flight surgeons, monitored the final stages of the descent before moving in to provide assistance, opening the capsule's hatch within about six minutes.
A few minutes after that, video from the landing site showed the crew members resting comfortably in chairs draped with blankets, with Laliberté wearing his familiar red clown nose. Padalka could be seen enjoying an apple as he and Barratt chatted with support personnel.
For Padalka and Barratt, launched March 26, touchdown closed out a marathon 199-day stay in orbit that was highlighted by the expansion of the crew from three to six astronauts and cosmonauts. Padalka, veteran of a flight to the old Mir space station and two expeditions aboard the ISS, boosted his spaceflight total to 586 days, putting him sixth on the list of most experienced space fliers.
Laliberté, a Canadian billionaire, is believed to have paid around $35 million to spend nine days aboard the station as a tourist. He took off September 30 with cosmonaut Maxim Suraev and NASA flight engineer Jeffrey Williams, who remained behind aboard the station as part of the six-member Expedition 21 crew.
Padalka, Barratt, and Laliberté undocked from the space station's Pirs airlock module at 9:07 p.m. Saturday. Padalka made the trip back to Earth strapped into the central descent module's center seat with Barratt, serving as flight engineer, to his left and Laliberté to his right.
"Gennady, good luck," Suraev radioed from the station as the Soyuz pulled away. "You look wonderful against the backdrop of black space. It's amazing, I don't have enough words."
"You'll do great, I just know it," Padalka replied.
"Good luck to all of you," Suraev said. "Stay safe, have a nominal landing. I hope you do well after you get back and I hope you'll be running later today, once you're on the ground."
"OK, well Max, we wish you a great time aboard the station," Padalka said. "We'll see you sometime in spring. And by the way, call me if you have any questions, because I know you will."
The Soyuz TMA-14's braking rockets fired on time at 11:40 p.m. for about four minutes and 24 seconds, slowing the ship by about 258 mph to drop it out of orbit.
The lower propulsion module and the upper orbital module separated from the central descent module just after midnight, about three minutes before the components fall into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of 64 miles. The separation sequence went smoothly, setting up a normal descent to the planned landing site as opposed to a steeper "ballistic" trajectory.
Landing near Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, was uneventful, although a brisk wind pulled the craft over on its side after touchdown.
In an interview with CBS News last week, Barratt said he was looking forward to a reunion with his wife and five children.
"I'm really going to miss the station," he said. "Just floating and flying here are tremendous and I would say after six-and-a-half months up here, I can now float and fly fairly proficiently. It's takes a little bit of time to really adapt to this, what my friend Shannon Lucid would call 'deep adaptation' to space flight, it really does take some time and I think I've finally gotten there.
"The Earth views are just amazing, I'm going to miss those. As much as anything, I'm going to miss the time around the galley table with this crew. We really worked well together and had a lot of fun. But the big magnet on the ground, of course, is my family. I have a wonderful, crazy family that I've really missed a lot that I'm looking forward to getting back to them."
Asked about re-adaptation to gravity after an extended stay in weightlessness, Barratt, a flight surgeon, said a new resistive exercise machine had helped him stay in shape.
"I'm in about as good shape as I can be up here," he said. "We've got a new resistive exercise machine which I've been working on fairly diligently for the last six-and-a-half months and it's the first time we've really had that kind of loading in space. We have the treadmill, of course, and the bike and I've tried to hit every session of exercise I can and I think I'm about as good as I can be.
"I'm not a young guy anymore and there are certainly some challenges associated with re-entry and getting back to the gravity vector. But I'm certainly going to give it my best shot and hopefully go through it OK and as always, try to take meticulous notes about it."
Padalka was replaced as commander of the space station by European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne. His crew, known as Expedition 21, includes Suraev, Williams, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk.
"Our mission was very, very long and very productive and, I would say, very eventful," Padalka said last week. "The main goal of our mission was six-person crew, which was started up in June...Right now, we are ready to go home, and I hope space station will be left in a great operational condition for the next commander and the next crew."
Romanenko, Thirsk, and De Winne were launched to the station on May 27. Stott was launched aboard the shuttle Discovery Aug. 28 and she plans to return to Earth in November with the crew of the shuttle Atlantis. De Winne, Thirsk, and Romanenko are scheduled to come home Dec. 1, briefly leaving the station with just two crew members: Williams, serving as commander of Expedition 22, and Suraev. Three fresh crew members--cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, astronaut Timothy Creamer, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi--are scheduled for launch December 21.