Thursday, June 11, 2015

Space Station Trio Return to Earth after Extended Mission

The crew of the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft have returned to Earth after completing their 199 day-long mission to the International Space Station.

Virts, Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti in their reclining chairs
shortly after landing credit: NASA
Soyuz commander Anton Shkaplerov and crew mates Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti landed their vehicle in the remote steppe of Kazakhtan at 14:45 UTC. under the setting Kazakh sun.

Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforetti said their goodbyes to their Expedition 43 crew mates early this morning before hatches between the station and the Soyuz were closed. This was followed at 11:20 by the undocking of the spacecraft, marking  the beginning of Expedition 44.

Expedition 43 commander Virts handed over the reigns of the station to Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, marking his fourth stint at the commander of the complex.

The Soyuz TMA-15M crew were originally slated to return to Earth last month, but the failure of the Russian Progress 59 resupply ship destined for the complex led to the postponement of their return home.

Shortly after landing in perfect conditions the crew were extracted one by one from the vehicle by Russian search and recovery forces at the landing site. They then sat for a short period in reclining chairs as they got a chance to come to terms with gravity once again after spending six and a half months in the microgravity environment aboard the ISS. The trio were then carried a short distance to an inflatable medical tent for brief testing and were also able to don some more comfortable clothing for a two hour helicopter ride to the staging city of Karaganda in Kazakhstan for a short welcoming ceremony. 

Altogether the crew have travelled 84.2 million miles in space since their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last November. 

"I'm going to miss these guys up here. Congrats on your safe return to Earth"
-Scott Kelly on Twitter
This afternoon's landing concludes the second long duration space flight for Shkaplerov who has now logged a total of 364 days in space. Terry Virts who has also just wrapped up his second flight to the station having previously flown there for a 13 day-long space shuttle mission in 2010 now has a total of 212 days of space flight experience under his belt. As for Cristoforetti, fresh from completing her first flight into space having been selected as an astronaut by the European Space Agency in 2009 now holds the record for the longest single space flight by a female, previously held by NASA astronaut Suni Williams.

In the meantime, Commander Padalka and his Expedition 44 crew mates Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelły will remain by themselves aboard the station for the next six weeks. They will be joined in late July by Oleg Kononenko, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui- the crew of the Soyuz TMA-17M.

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