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Soyuz brings space station crew home

Outgoing space station commander Oleg Kotov, Timothy Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi returned to Earth with a picture-perfect landing in Kazakhstan to close out a 163-day mission.

The Soyuz TMA-17 crew capsule, carrying outgoing space station commander Oleg Kotov, Timothy Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi, settled to a safe parachute-and-rocket-assisted landing in Kazakhstan on Tuesday after a descent from the International Space Station.

Closing out a 163-day space mission, the Expedition 23 crew members fell through a clear blue sky and touched down on target near Dzhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan at 11:25 p.m. EDT. Recovery crews, including Russian, U.S., and Japanese personnel, quickly reached the capsule to provide assistance.

The Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft fires its braking rockets an instant before touchdown in Kazakhstan after descent from the International Space Station. NASA

Television views from the landing site showed all three crew members, still wearing their pressure suits, seated in reclining chairs under blankets, smiling and appearing relaxed as medical officers checked their vital signs. All three enjoyed fresh apples as they waved and chatted with supporters.

"It was an on-target landing," NASA spokeman Rob Navias said from the landing site. "This is a beautiful spring day.... This crew, after 163 days in space, is doing just great."

The return to Earth appeared to go smoothly, starting with the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft's undocking from the aft port of the Zvezda command module at 8:04 p.m. Kotov then monitored a four-minute 21-second deorbit rocket firing starting at 10:34 a.m. that slowed the craft by about 258 mph to drop it out of orbit.

Just before falling into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of about 62 miles, the three modules making up the Soyuz TMA-17 separated as planned. The crew, strapped in to the central descent module, fell into the atmosphere around 11:02 p.m. and followed the planned trajectory to the landing site.

After medical checks, Kotov, Creamer, and Noguchi were to be flown to Karaganda where they planned to split up. Kotov was expected to head for Moscow and the cosmonaut training center at Star City while Creamer and Noguchi planned to board a NASA jet for a direct flight back to the United States. They are expected to arrive in Houston late Wednesday.

Kotov, Creamer, and Noguchi blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 20, 2009, docking two days later and joining Expedition 22 commander Jeffrey Williams and Maxim Suraev.

Kotov took over as commander of Expedition 23 with the departure of Williams and Suraev on March 18, and the crew expanded to six with the arrival of Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson on April 4.

With the departure of Kotov and his two crewmates, Kornienko, Caldwell Dyson, and Skvortsov, the new commander of the space station, became the core members of the Expedition 24 crew. They will be joined June 17 by Douglas Wheelock, Shannon Walker, and Fyodor Yurchikhin, who are scheduled for launch aboard the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft on June 15.