Outgoing space station commander Jeffrey Williams and Soyuz commander Maxim Suraev settled to a jarring touchdown in "blizzard-like" conditions in Kazakhstan Thursday after an apparently trouble-free descent from the International Space Station.
Suraev, strapped into the Soyuz descent module's center seat, monitored a computer-controlled 4-minute and 16-second rocket firing at 6:33 a.m. EDT, slowing the ship by about 257 mph to drop it out of orbit.
Just before falling into the discernible atmosphere around 7 a.m., the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft's three modules separated at an altitude of 87 miles and the central descent module carrying the crew oriented its heat shield forward for the final stages of the entry.
There were no apparent problems and a large braking parachute deployed as planned. An instant before touchdown, a final burst of rocket power slowed the descent and the module touched down near Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, at 7:24 a.m., tipping over on its side in gusty winds.
Russian recovery forces, NASA flight surgeons, and engineers were stationed nearby to help the crew members from the cramped descent module after 169 days in weightlessness.
"We're standing out here in blizzard-like conditions," NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said from the landing site at 7:50 a.m. "The Russian ground teams are moving fairly quickly through the procedures. They've already moved Jeff and Max to the medical tent."
He said the wind dragged the Soyuz descent module 20 to 30 feet after touchdown in three to four feet of snow. Both crew members, he said, flashed a thumbs up after being helped from the capsule.
The space station's three remaining crew members--Expedition 23 commander Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi, and Timothy Creamer--monitored the Soyuz entry via updates from mission control in Houston.
If all goes well, three fresh crew members--Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson--will blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard the Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft on April 2. Docking is expected two days later.