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Space station crew crew lands in frigid Kazakhstan
Posted: December 1, 2009

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Outgoing space station commander Frank De Winne, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk strapped into a Russian Soyuz capsule, undocked from the lab complex and fell back to Earth 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 standing by 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.

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.

Re-entry preparations began Monday evening. Hatches between the Soyuz and the International Space Station were closed at 7:43 p.m. Monday and the craft undocked from the Zarya module's Earth-facing port at 10:56 p.m.

Romanenko monitored a four-minute 19-second deorbit rocket firing starting at 1:26 a.m. Tuesday, slowing the capsule by about 258 mph and dropping the far side of its orbit deep into Earth's atmosphere. The Soyuz TMA-15's three modules separated at an altitude of 87 miles and three minutes later, around 1:53 a.m., the descent module carrying the crew fell into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of 63 miles.

Over the next five minutes and 38 seconds, G loads built up to their maximum level of up to five times the normal pull of Earth's gravity as the spacecraft falls to an altitude of 25.6 miles. Commands to begin opening the craft's pilot, drogue and braking parachutes came just after 2 a.m., at an altitude of about 6.6 miles, followed by touchdown near Arkalyk.

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 stationed nearby to assist the returning station fliers and carry out initial medical checks.

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, the first time since July 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 Dec. 20 U.S. time. Docking is expected two days later.