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Space station fliers land safely in Kazakhstan

Three crew members touch ground Tuesday in Kazakhstan, leaving just two others aboard the International Space Station until another Soyuz launch later this month.

The Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft undocks from the International Space Station. NASA TV

Outgoing space station commander Frank De Winne, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk strapped into a Russian Soyuz capsule, undocked and fell back to Earth on Tuesday, braving icy weather in Kazakhstan to close out a 188-day stay in space.

Descending under a large orange-and-white parachute, Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft made a rocket-assisted touchdown about 50 miles northeast of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, at 2:15:34 a.m. EST, about three hours and 20 minutes after undocking from the International Space Station.

Recovery forces, including U.S. and Russian flight surgeons, were near the landing site to help the returning spacemen out of the spacecraft's cramped descent module. Despite icy weather that forced authorities to ground the helicopters normally used, recovery crews in all-terrain vehicles reached the spacecraft within about 15 minutes of touchdown.

It was the first December landing of a Soyuz since 1990, but the Russians said the weather was acceptable for a safe descent.

Russian recovery teams surround the Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft, helping extract the crew members. NASA TV

Monitoring the re-entry and landing from the International Space Station were Expedition 22 commander Jeffrey Williams and flight engineer Maxim Suraev, who arrived at the outpost in early October.

"Four more months, guys, then it's your turn," De Winne said before departing. "Have a good flight. It's wonderful in space, enjoy it.

The Soyuz descent module landed upright, and recovery crews extracted Romanenko, Thirsk and then De Winne one at a time, transporting them on stretchers to nearby vehicles. All three were reported to be in good condition.

Because NASA is responsible for arranging Canadian, Japanese, and European Space Agency rides to and from the space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, NASA flight surgeons and managers joined Russian recovery crews to assist the returning station fliers and carry out initial medical checks.

Frank De Winne waves as he is helped from the Soyuz descent module. NASA TV

With the departure of Romanenko, Thirsk and Belgium's De Winne, the European Space Agency's first station commander, the International Space Station was left in the hands of Williams and Suraev. It is the first time since mid-2006 the station has been staffed by just two crew members.

But the solitude will not last long. Three more crew members--cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA flight engineer Timothy Creamer, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi--are scheduled for launch aboard the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft on December 20. Docking is expected two days later.