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Articles / Astronomy

By Alissa de Carbonnel

KOROLYOV, Russia | Wed Mar 16, 2011 11:31am EDT

(Reuters) - A Russian Soyuz capsule parachuted onto the Kazakh steppe through stiff winds and snow on Wednesday, delivering a U.S.-Russian astronaut trio to Earth after five months on the International Space Station.

U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka and Alexander Kaleri were in "good health and good spirits" after the landing at 0754 GMT, Russia's Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, said.

The descent was the first of an upgraded model of the Soyuz, with a new digital guidance system. Its failure would have forced a manually guided "ballistic" landing at a steep angle, subjecting the crew to stronger gravitational forces and stoking concerns over the world's reliance on Soyuz craft as the only ride to the space station.

"There has been a soft landing, the digital guidance system worked. The capsule is on Earth," an announcer at the cavernous Russian Mission Control room said to loud applause.

Thermal blankets were wrapped around the trio as they shivered in the snowy and wind-blown steppe of Kazakhstan as rescue crews crowded around to wipe sweat from their brows.

The extreme conditions caused flight surgeons to cancel a traditional welcome home for astronauts at the landing site, which gives them pause to re-adapt to gravity in medical tents, instead whisking the crew off to waiting helicopters.

Spectators watched the Soyuz TMA-01M enter the atmosphere, leaving behind two flight engineers, American Catherine Coleman and Italian Paolo Nespoli, aboard the ISS.

The text-book landing will help allay growing concern about relying solely on Russia for flights to the $100 billion space station, which is shared by 16 nations, just before NASA mothballs its shuttle program later this year.

TECHNICAL PROBLEMS

NASA signed a $753 million contract modification with the Russian space agency Roskosmos on Monday for 12 seats aboard Soyuz flights from 2014 through June 2016 at nearly $63 million each, a price increase of more than 20 percent.

Technical problems delayed this month's planned launch of the next Soyuz mission, timed to honor the 50th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first manned flight to space in 1961. The launch was postponed from March 30 and there remains the risk it may not go ahead before the April 12 anniversary.

The delay is the latest in a string of embarrassing setbacks for Russia's state space agency, fuelling rumors its long-time head Anatoly Perminov will be sidelined.

The agency lost control of three GLONASS navigation satellites and one military satellite in two costly failed launches over the last three months. Last year a balky latch meant astronauts had to stay aboard the space station an extra day in orbit.

Kelly is the brother-in-law of U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was badly wounded in an Arizona shooting rampage in January. Her husband Mark Kelly is to blast off on the penultimate U.S. shuttle mission on April 19.

Source: Reuters
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