ASTANA, Kazakhstan A Soyuz spacecraft safely delivered a three-man, U.S.-Russian crew to Earth on Sunday in the first landing since the Columbia space shuttle disaster touching down nearly 300 miles off-course in the steppes of Central Asia.
Russian spotters found the capsule after a nerve-racking, two-hour search. The three crewmen climbed from the spacecraft and waved at a search plane. A NASA doctor, Mike Duncan, saw the three and reported they appeared to be in good health.
It was the first time U.S. astronauts landed on foreign soil in another nation's craft.
Arriving by helicopter at the airport in the Kazakh capital Astana, astronaut Kenneth Bowersox told U.S. and Russian space officials the crew was feeling fine.
"Just normal return to Earth," he said with a broad smile.
Though they looked pale and squinted in the bright sunlight, he and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin walked with sure strides to a plane taking them to Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside Moscow.
But the other astronaut, Donald Pettit, looked queasy and could hardly walk. Several people helped him to the plane, and then up the steps. When he made it to the top, the crowd of about 50 people applauded.
The search ended a 51/2-month mission shaken by the loss of the Columbia on Feb. 1, which prompted the grounding of the U.S. shuttle fleet and a change in plans for the astronauts left in space.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe praised the Russian-U.S. cooperation that allowed the American space program to continue.
"At the time when we needed them most, Russia, our partners, have excelled," O'Keefe said. "The international space station goes on because of their commitment."
Rather than gliding to Florida in a shuttle, Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin rode in a Soyuz TMA capsule just 2 yards wide and 2 yards long.
Ten search helicopters carrying NASA doctors, Russian space agency and military officials and reporters set out from the Kazakh capital, Astana, to find the capsule. Crew members listened to radio updates on the progress of the Soyuz's descent, and everything appeared to be going well.
But at the scheduled touchdown time, no parachutes or capsule could be seen in the sky or on the barren steppe. In one helicopter, two Russian air force officers huddled together, each holding half of one headset to an ear. They gestured to the others on board that nothing had been heard from the spacecraft or seen on the ground. The helicopter and at least four others then headed back to Astana leaving the search to other aircraft.
At mission control, elation over the landing turned to confusion. There were conflicting reports about where the capsule landed and whether communications had been established. Russian space officials retreated to their offices, leaving NASA officials in the dark.
Finally, mission control announced the capsule had been found just north of the Aral Sea. The landing site was some 287 miles southwest of the target, NASA spokesman Rob Navias said. The capsule landed on its side and drifted about 40 feet, probably dragged by the main parachute.
"The mission was a complete success," said Jim Newman, an astronaut in charge of NASA's human spaceflight program in Russia. "Hey, they're alive."
Allard Beutel, a NASA official at Russia's mission control, said the capsule landed on a steeper trajectory than expected. A Russian ballistic researcher, Nikolai Ivanov, said such a descent would have increased the force of gravity to G-9, well above the planned G-7 but still within a range the astronauts could tolerate. He said the descent could have affected the capsule's communications system, hampering search-and-rescue efforts.
Yuri Semyonov, director of RKK Energiya, the company that builds Russian spacecraft, said human error could not be ruled out: Someone could have pulled one lever when they intended to reach for another.
It was the first time the new Soyuz model had gone through a descent.
"We very often get used to the fact that everything will work as normal," said Russian space agency chief Yuri Koptev. "But space is a new horizon."
The crew's mission went two months longer than planned because extra time was needed to bring their replacements aboard another Soyuz after the Columbia accident.
Astronaut Edward Lu and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko checked in last week for a six-month stay that promises to be a challenge, given the reduction in crew size to conserve supplies until shuttle flights resume.
Passing command to Malenchenko before floating into the Soyuz for the flight home, Bowersox told the new crewmen, "You guys have to be the two luckiest guys who come from planet Earth today. Over the next six months you get to live aboard this beautiful ship."
"Yuri, I'm ready to be relieved," he added.
In a linkup to the station broadcast live on Russian state television Saturday before the undocking, Budarin played down the risk of returning in a Soyuz that has not landed before, saying the differences from the previous model were "only modifications."
"I have made two descents in a Soyuz and there were no problems at all, and I think there won't be any problems this time," he said, bobbing slowly up and down in zero gravity.
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