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NASA astronauts return to a drastically changed Earth after months in orbit

Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan performed dangerous and historic space walks during their missions, but they've come back to a planet with new dangers of its own.

The Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 62 crew members Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan of NASA, and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos, on Friday, April 17.  
NASA/GCTC/Andrey Shelepin

When astronauts return to Earth, it usually takes time to readjust to life with gravity and the basic option to go outside. But NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan, along with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, returned Friday morning to a world that's drastically different today than what it was when they left for the International Space Station months earlier. 

The trio made a parachute-assisted landing in a Soyuz capsule that touched down in a remote part of Kazakhstan, where they were greeted by crews wearing face masks. 

Total social distancing is pretty much impossible when returning to Earth from orbit, as each space traveler is pulled one-by-one from the capsule by four men who carry them to a chair where they enjoy a first breath of fresh air in months and go through a series of medical checks. 

NASA TV broadcast the entire process, and it's bittersweet to see the astronauts welcomed home, sitting and enjoying their first bit of sunshine in 2020 as members of the recovery crew ask all non-medical staff to keep a safe distance while the checks are done. 

Russian officials said the crew that met the astronauts had been tested and monitored for nearly a month beforehand to make sure they weren't carrying the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Cases of coronavirus have been reported at Star City, where astronauts and cosmonauts train, and Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, has recorded 30 cases among its ranks, according to the AP.

Morgan's nine-month mission began July 20, while Meir and Skripochka have been in space since Sept. 25. They're among the rare minority of humans we can be absolutely sure had no exposure to the coronavirus -- at least until three new colleagues arrived at the space station last week

The trio said in interviews from the space station before returning that they had been keeping tabs on the pandemic news.

"It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below," Meir said. 

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During her time in orbit, Meir conducted three historic all-female spacewalks with fellow astronaut Christina Koch. Morgan also participated in seven space walks during his nine-month mission. 

While getting their vitals checked, the returned Earthlings had a chance to call their families before taking a helicopter back to the Baikonur cosmodrome, where the three will split up and Meir and Morgan will take a NASA flight home to Houston. 

The next flight to the space station will also be historic. NASA and SpaceX are set to send astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon launching from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on May 27. This will be the first time humans have traveled to space from US soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

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