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Vittori (left), Sharipov (center), and Chiao after landing safely today
A Russian Soyuz capsule touched down on the Kazakh steppe early today -- bringing three men back to Earth safely from the International Space Station. The Soyuz rockets have been the only way of sending crews and cargo to the space station since the U.S. space shuttle "Columbia" disaster more than two years ago. But the next scheduled launch to the space station is due to be a return to flight by the U.S. space shuttle "Discovery."
Prague, 25 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ground controllers at the Russian space-control center monitored a Soyuz space capsule as its main parachute carried it to a landing today on the marshy steppes of Kazakhstan.
The cramped capsule was returning to Earth with Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov and American astronaut Leroy Chiao. They had been aboard the International Space Station (ISS) since October. It also carried Italian Roberto Vittori of the European Space Agency, who spent the last eight days on the orbiting craft.
Today's operation to recover the returning capsule was complicated by weather conditions. Just three of 10 recovery helicopters were able to land in the waterlogged area after weeks of heavy snow and rain there. But after the capsule came to rest softly in an upright position there were no major problems, according to Russian Space Agency chief Anatolii Perminov.
"Everything went as planned," Perminov said. "My congratulations to everyone. Everyone is healthy and doing well. As you have heard, everyone has been taken out of the capsule."
William Readdy, a representative of NASA who was at the Russian space-control center, praised the work there.
"Again, our Russian colleagues have shown how flexible they can be in the face of such daunting weather conditions, and conditions in the landing zone, to safely recover the crew," Readdy said.
Safety has been on the minds of both Russian and U.S. space teams. Russian space officials today avoided a repeat of a computer error in May 2003 that put a Soyuz capsule -- also returning from the ISS -- about 400 kilometers off course.
In the United States, NASA plans to start launching space-shuttle missions to the ISS for the first time in more than two years. All shuttle missions have been grounded since the space shuttle "Columbia" disintegrated over Texas in February of 2003 -- killing all seven astronauts on board.
Before undocking from the ISS late last night, the Soyuz left behind a new crew. Russian Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips have a six-month mission that includes welcoming the return to flight of U.S. space shuttles. But that mission will take a bit longer than originally planed.
The shuttle "Discovery" had been scheduled to launch sometime during mid-to-late May. But last week, NASA pushed back the earliest possible launch date to 22 May -- with a possibility to delay the liftoff until 3 June. NASA officials say the delay will allow final safety checks to be completed.
"What happens every day in the engine shop is to make sure the systems are good," said Susan Johnson, a safety manager for the "Discovery" mission. "We make sure there is no leak from the engine. We make sure that the [computer] software is good that is loaded into it. And those are the engines that we prepare for launch each time."
Earlier this month, NASA rolled the "Discovery" shuttle out onto its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Discovery's pressurized cargo container -- called "Raffaelo" also has been sealed with supplies inside for the ISS. The cargo container is expected to be loaded into the "Discovery" by the end of April.
The "return to flight" mission of "Discovery" will be commanded by Eileen Collins. It will be her fourth space shuttle mission. Collins says she has been reassured by more than two years of safety checks that the shuttle is safe. She is already looking at how the mission is helping to pave the way for NASA's long-term plan of sending humans back to the moon -- and, for the first time, to walk on the surface of Mars.
"This is the kind of stuff, when we go back to the moon and on to Mars, we're going to have astronauts that are really good hands-on mechanical engineering kind of guys and gals who can go in there and fix things," Collins said. "And we're doing that kind of stuff on the International Space Station right now.”
In Moscow, mission control spokesman Valerii Lyndin said that even after the "Discovery" and "Atlantis" shuttles resume flight, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft will continue to travel to-and-from the station about twice a year.