Three people returned from space to Earth on Monday, as crew members from the International Space Station successfully touched down in a Soyuz capsule. On a crisp evening in rural Kazakhstan, Russian and American personnel recovered members of Expedition 50, helping them out of their space gear and preparing them for the two-hour helicopter ride back to a recovery center.
NASA commander Shane Kimbrough joined Roscosmos flight engineers Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov on a 73.2-million-mile journey back to Earth. The group lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 19, before spending 173 days in space with three other crew members. During that time, the group shared photos of Christmas celebrations aboard the space station, conducted a spacewalk to complete a battery upgrade and even grew some space lettuce.
In what was described as a “bullseye touchdown” by NASA, the capsule landed at 7.21 a.m. Eastern, 89 miles southeast of Zhezkazgan. The team was extracted from the capsule 14 minutes later.
Ryzhikov was first out, followed by Kimbrough, then Borisenko last, as he was sat in the leftmost seat as onboard engineer. Live video feed transmitted by NASA showed a beaming Ryzhikov, sat in a chair talking on a satellite phone in the evening sun.
As is standard for operations like these, the lead helicopter pilot received a medal for transporting the crew over to the landing site. Following extraction, crew members were led to an inflatable tent, where a team helps remove their space gear ready for the flight back to the center. The Soyuz was then moved to an upright position so teams can extract any remaining cargo. The three astronauts are transported in their own separate helicopters.
The remaining astronauts on board the space station are Thomas Pesquet, Oleg Novitskiy, and Peggy Whitson. They will be joined by Fyodor Yurchikhin and Jack Fischer on April 20 for Expedition 51. That means the station will feature a crew of five — for now, Roscosmos does not need the extra crew member, but the agency is expected to return to full staffing by 2018.