Russian spacecraft from ISS lands safely

A Russian Soyuz capsule with three crew landed safely back on Earth.

Moscow: A Russian Soyuz capsule with three crew landed safely back on Earth from the International Space Station on Saturday after unprecedented problems undocking kept astronauts an extra day in orbit.

"The landing was without incident. The crew feels normal," said a spokesman for the Russian mission control outside Moscow.

Russia`s space agency said the craft carrying US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko had landed on time of 9:23 am (0523 GMT) and exactly at the planned site in the Kazakh steppes.

The first television images showed the three-member crew remaing aboard the space station -- NASA astronauts Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker, and Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin-- pumping their fists and cheering the safe landing.

Mission commander Skvortsov was the first to be helped out of the capsule and wrapped in a blue thermal blanket after the arduous flight.

Grinning widely, he flashed an okay sign to cameras and bit into an apple, the first food traditionally given to the crew after landing.

"It was all superb up until the very last minute, the landing. I feel great," Skvortsov beamed. "You saw for yourself, we met the Earth softly and tenderly."

But Kornienko joked he had no desire to chomp on an apple. "We have to change tradition, I want a cucumber! I haven`t had a cucumber in half a year," he told the cameras.

Dyson, the only crew member to have previously flown into space aboard the US shuttle Endeavour, was shown speaking to loved ones by satellite phone from the landing site, about 35 kilometres (20 miles) from the remote Kazakh town of Arkalyk.

The smiling but weary-looking crew members were crowded around by the retrieval team, including a Russian Orthodox priest and white-smocked doctors who checked their pulses and wiped their brows of sweat.

The crew who have lived six months in orbit had been scheduled to make their drop to Earth on Friday but the descent was delayed by 24 hours after the Soyuz craft failed to undock for the first time in a decade of ISS flights.

The six ISS members worked frantically to troubleshoot for the new launch time after fears that the capsule was not fully airlocked due to a computer malfunction and after a jam of the latches locking the Soyuz to the station.

"We confirmed that the signal on a loss of air pressure was false, carried out troubleshooting and discovered the problem was purely mechanical," Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.

"One bolt was broken," he explained of Friday`s failure to undock. "The most important thing is that the technical group resolved all the problems swiftly."

After the undocking failure, Yurchikhin discovered a loose gear piece near the operating mechanism locking the Soyuz to the space station, which officials said might have been to blame.

"A small screw or bolt got stuck in the gear mechanism," said Vitaly Lopota, who heads the Energia space corporation, one of the Soyuz`s designers.

"As a result the contact group did not function, which blocked the electromechanic hooks anchoring the spacecraft to the station."

On the crew`s first undocking attempt, one of their computers sent up a red flag showing the airlock was not fully sealed, Perminov had said Friday.

The Roskosmos head said the crew deserved to be awarded state honors for the inherent dangers of their work.

"There are a million such details that can go wrong, and any one of them affects safety," he said. "I thank everyone.

"The crew members have proved themselves to be competent experts."

While Friday`s docking problem was the first involving the Soyuz, it was the third with a Russian craft in four months after the automatic system failed on two unmanned Progress supply shuttles, causing one to fly past the station in June.

The string of mishaps in a space programme that usually strives for and achieves pinpoint accuracy comes just before NASA mothballs its shuttle fleet later this year, leaving the ISS entirely dependent on the Russian spacecraft.

Bureau Report

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