Near Zhezkazgan (Kazakhstan): A Soyuz capsule carried an International Space Station crew of three back to Earth on Monday along with an Olympic torch that was displayed in open space as part of Russia`s preparations for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.
Slowed by parachutes and braking rockets fired to soften the impact, the Soyuz TMA-09M hit the Kazakh steppe on schedule at 8:49 a.m. (0249 GMT) after a three-and-half-hour descent from the space station, live footage on Russian and NASA TV showed.
"The Olympic torch is home after a four-day journey," a NASA TV announcer said after what he called a flawless descent through a cloudless sky and a "bulls-eye touchdown" in the tall tawny brush of central Kazakhstan, near the remote town of Zhezkazgan.
Burly Russian personnel pulled cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin from the capsule, which lay on its side, carried him to a folding chair and covered him with a thick blue blanket against the minus 4 degrees Centigrade (25 Fahrenheit) cold.
The silver-and-grey torch, inspired by the Firebird of Russian folklore, was taken out of the Soyuz, unwrapped and handed to Yurchikhin, who beamed as he held it up for the cameras.
His countrymen Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky had taken the torch - unlit - on a spacewalk on Saturday, the first time an Olympic torch has been in open space. Torches have been brought on space missions before the 1996 and 2000 Games.
The torch they took into space is to be used to light the Olympic flame when the first Olympics held in Russia since the Soviet era begin in February in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
US astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency were carried from the capsule and into chairs next to Yurchikhin before all three were taken to a heated medical tent - regular practice after a jarring descent.
"A split second before you touch the soft landing rockets go off ... and then you hit," NASA astronaut Michael Fossum said at the Baikonur launch facility, describing his own return to Earth aboard a Soyuz in 2011.
"It`s solid. Most people will describe it like a car crash. It`s like: `Well, I think we are home.`"
Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano spent 166 days on the station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations.
The torch was brought up to the space station on Thursday by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, American Rick Mastracchio and Russian Mikhail Tyurin aboard another Soyuz craft that lifted off from the Russian-leased facility at Baikonur.
Russia cast the spacewalk as part of its pre-Sochi torch relay, a record-breaking trek meant to show off Russia`s size, diversity and post-Soviet achievements, although the 65,000 km (40,000 mile) relay continued separately on the ground.
Bearers have taken the flame to the North Pole on an atomic-powered icebreaker and will bring it to Europe`s highest peak, Mount Elbrus, in the longest torch relay before any Winter Games.
The returning space station crew also brought back a piece of the spacesuit worn by Parmitano that may have been responsible for a leak that caused his helmet to fill with water, forcing an emergency end to NASA`s last spacewalk on July 16.
The torch display was a success, with Kotov and Ryazansky snapping images of the torch with the metallic station, space and Earth as backdrops. But other tasks on the nearly six-hour spacewalk did not go as well.
The cosmonauts were unable to fold up an antenna from an experiment involving predicting seismic events such as earthquakes, leaving it for a future outing.
They also did not complete the task of repositioning a platform designed to anchor spacewalkers` legs while they work outside the station.