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World: Soyuz Brings Russian, U.S. Astronauts Safely Back From Space

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft has brought back American and Russian astronauts from space. The capsule landed safely in Kazakhstan early today, precisely on time and on target. Two of the three men on board were returning from a six-month mission to the International Space Station, which now has a new Russian-American crew in charge.

24 October 2004 -- After six months in space, Russian cosmonaut Gennadii Padalka finally handed over command of the station to his American replacement last night.

Padalka and his two colleagues then entered the Soyuz craft and strapped themselves in for the journey back to Earth.

The capsule streaked through the atmosphere and then unfurled a parachute, landing on target in the steppes of Kazakhstan early this morning.

Safely out of the capsule, the three men sipped hot drinks as they savored the smell of Earth.

American Mike Fincke said the ride had been exhilarating. "We got into the atmosphere and we started seeing heat shields flake away -- it looked like fireworks. It was really beautiful," Fincke said.

Russian spacecraft have become the sole means of sending crews and cargo to the space station since February last year, when the U.S. space shuttle fleet was grounded after the Columbia craft disintegrated, killing all seven people on board.

Padalka and Fincke had been in space since April. They conducted four space walks, including one to repair a gyroscope that orients the station in space.

But there were several glitches, too.

The crew twice lost the station's orientation in space, and on one occasion mission control briefly lost all contact with them.

Earlier this month, the Soyuz crew arriving at the space station had to switch from automatic to manual control after the craft appeared to be approaching the station too quickly.

But today, the astronauts and officials were toasting the success of the mission and the Soyuz's return flight.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe was at Russian mission control.

"I think the nature of the relationship today has never been better. We have a very clear understanding of the challenges we all mutually are encountering. And I could not ask for a more professional, more straight-up relationship with all our International Space Station colleagues, in particularly so with our Roskosmos [Russian Space Agency] colleagues," O'Keefe said.

The space station is now being manned by Russian Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao, who arrived there last week.

The third astronaut aboard the Soyuz today, Russian Yuri Shagrin, had arrived at the space station eight days ago with the new crew.