ALMATY: A Russian Soyuz space capsule with three astronauts on board landed safely in Kazakhstan on Friday, leaving a single three-man crew aboard the International Space Station.
U.S. astronaut Ron Garan and Russian cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev, who had manned the station since April, appeared in good health after landing on the Kazakh steppe at 0959 local time (0359 GMT).
"We now can confirm that Soyuz TMA-21 has landed," an announcer on NASA television said. He later described a "bullseye landing".
The Soyuz capsule landed on its side, whipping up plumes of dust as it settled on the steppe 92 miles (148km) southeast of the city of Zhezkazgan.
Samokutyaev was first to emerge, appearing in good spirits as a doctor performed initial medical checks, live pictures broadcast by NASA television showed.
Garan was second to be extracted from the capsule, followed by former station commander Borisenko, who flashed a thumbs-up signal before he and his colleagues were carried on their chairs to a makeshift inflatable hospital for further checks.
Rescue personnel attached a portrait of Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolyov and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, to the capsule. This year marked the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's first manned space flight.
The returning crew had spent 164 days in space, NASA said. Their replacements - NASA flight engineer Dan Burbank and cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin - were scheduled to arrive on Sept. 24 at the International Space Station, a US$100bil project involving 16 nations.
But their flight was delayed following an Aug. 24 launch accident involving an unmanned Russian cargo ship bound for the station.
The upper-stage motor that failed on the Russian Progress rocket, causing it to burn up in the atmosphere and shower debris across part of Siberia, is virtually identical to one used to fly crew to the station on Soyuz rockets.
The new crew is now scheduled to fly on Nov. 14, NASA said, arriving at the station two days later. In the meantime, one crew - comprising station commander Mike Fossum, Japanese flight engineer Satoshi Furukawa and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov - will remain.
They will have little time to prepare the new crew to take over the station before heading home themselves around Nov. 22.
With the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles this summer, crews can reach the station only aboard Russian rockets. China, the only other country able to fly people into orbit, is not a partner in the space station.
The Progress launch failure is believed to have been caused by a blockage in a kerosene fuel line. Russia plans to fly another cargo ship on Oct. 30 before launching the next station crew.
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