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Space station crew, tourist return to Earth

Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke, Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov, and tourist Charles Simonyi land safely in Kazakhstan after descent from International Space Station.

Dropping to Earth under a huge parachute, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying outgoing space station Commander Mike Fincke, Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov, and space tourist Charles Simonyi settled to a jarring landing in Kazakhstan on Wednesday after a descent from the International Space Station.

Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft at the moment of touchdown in Kazakhstan. NASA

With Lonchakov at the controls, the central descent module of the Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft touched down at 3:16 a.m. EDT northeast of Dzhezkazgan, coming to rest on its side.

Russian recovery forces were staged nearby to assist the returning space fliers, as required, and by 3:30 a.m., all three were resting comfortably in reclining chairs near the descent module, smiling and chatting with flight surgeons and technicians.

"It landed just a few kilometers long of its intended site, but essentially a dead-on, spot-on, bull's-eye landing for Mike Fincke, Yury Lonchakov, and Charles Simonyi," said NASA commentator Rob Navias from the landing site. "The Soyuz landed on its side. That is very typical for a Soyuz landing. It is breezy out here today; the wind caught the chutes, pulled the capsule over. But it was a very quick extraction out of the top hatch for the three crew members. They all look to be in excellent shape."

Landing came one day later than originally planned because of soggy conditions at the normal landing zone north of Arkalyk.

The Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station at 11:55 p.m. Tuesday. Lonchakov carried out a four-and-a-half-minute deorbit rocket firing at 2:24 a.m., slowing the ship by about 258 mph and putting it on the proper trajectory for landing.

Just before atmospheric entry, Russian flight controllers lost contact with the spacecraft, but the three modules making up the Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft apparently separated as planned, and the central descent module carrying the crew made a normal re-entry. Communications were restored a few minutes before the craft's braking parachute was deployed, and Lonchakov reported "nominal" conditions on board.

Returning space station crew relaxes after landing (seated, left to right): Charles Simonyi, Yury Lonchakov, Mike Fincke. NASA TV

"We're happy to say one more space flight mission is now in the history books," an unidentified Russian observed.

U.S. flight controllers then called the space station, informing Expedition 19 commander Gennady Padalka, flight engineer Michael Barratt, and Koichi Wakata that their crewmates had made a safe landing.

"Hey guys, just in case you didn't have good video and audio during that, the Soyuz landed safely. The crew reported they feel fine. SAR (search-and-recovery) forces are on the scene," called the spacecraft communicator.

"We did get that, and thanks so much for the video," Barratt replied. "We saw it, and hurrah for the 18 crew and Charles Simonyi, and welcome them back to Earth."

Touchdown ended a 178-day voyage for Fincke and Lonchakov, who were launched to the station October 12 as the core members of the lab's 18th full-time crew. Fincke's time in space through two space station expeditions now stands at 366 days, putting him third on the list of most experienced U.S. astronauts, behind Peggy Whitson, with 377 days, and Mike Foale, with 374 days.

Lonchakov's total for three space missions stands at 201 days, while Simonyi's 13-day station visit boosted his two-flight total to 27 days. Simonyi, a Hungarian-born U.S. software developer, is the first space tourist to make two privately financed trips to the space station. His wife, Lisa, was standing by at the recovery zone to welcome him back to Earth with a kiss.

Lisa Simonyi welcomes husband Charles back to Earth after space station visit. NASA TV

"It was a difficult decision for me to fly for the second time, and now, looking back, I'm so glad that I've done it," Simonyi said Tuesday during a brief farewell ceremony aboard the station. "It was a great trip. Thank you, everyone. I'm looking forward to (getting) home to my wife, but it was a fantastic trip. Thank you."

An inflatable tent was set up at the landing site for initial medical checks before helicopter flights back to Karaganda and then a three-hour flight to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City near Moscow, where friends and family members were waiting.

Fincke was welcomed home in Kazakhstan by NASA space station Program Manager Mike Suffredini, chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, and a NASA flight surgeon Steve Hart.