Soyuz Delivers Multinational ISS Crew Safely to Earth

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Russian recovery teams quickly greeted U. S., Japanese and Russian astronauts Rick Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata and Mikhail Tyurin as their Soyuz spacecraft descended under parachute into central Kazakhstan late Tuesday, ending a 188-day mission to the International Space Station for the three Expedition 39 crew members.

Koichi Wakata, first Japanese to command spacecraft. NASA TV

The recovery operations were carried out with no outward signs of the tension  exhibited in statements earlier in the day from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who suggested his country was prepared to end its cooperation in the U. S. led, 15 nation ISS program  over sanctions levied by the U. S. after Moscow's annexation of Crimea. Rogozin also threated to halt the export of engines for U. S. Atlas V and Antares rockets unless there are assurances their missions would not serve military purposes.

Soyuz TMA-11M undocks over Mongolia. NASA TV

The Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft touched down at 9:58 p.m., EDT, or Wednesday at 7:58 a.m., local time. Representatives from NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency were among the helicopter borne recovery forces that reached the landing site within minutes to assist the three men from the capsule.

Soyuz TMA-11M nears Kazakh steppes.  NASA TV

"The landing could not have been more perfect," said NASA public affairs spokesman Rob Navias from the landing site. "The atmosphere is jubilant."

NASA's Rick Mastracchio grins after six months in orbit. NASA TV

The spacecraft's departure from the ISS Russian segment Rassvet module at 6:36 p.m. ended the inaugural Japanese command of the six person space station. Wakata took command on March 10.

As the TMA-11M departed, responsibility aboard the orbiting science lab for the safety and performance of the crew transferred to U. S. astronaut Steve Swanson, a three-time NASA space traveler, who reached the station aboard the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft with cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev on March 27.

The orderly handover of station responsibilities to Swanson, the Expedition 40 commander, bore no signs of the latest chapter in the terrestrial turmoil over Ukraine that erupted Tuesday. Earlier this year, the U. S. proposed a four year extension of ISS operations, from 2020 to 2024. The end of the Cold War brought the two one-time rivals in space together in 1998 for the joint assembly and staffing of the station.

Rogozin said Russian contributions to the ISS could be used for other space initiatives.

Western sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine also threaten to stop sales of the RD-180 and NK-33 rocket engines to the U. S. The first powers the first stage of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V. A modified version of the second  powers Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket, which is used for the commercial delivery of cargo the ISS.

The station is scheduled to return to six person operations on May 28, with the arrival of the next Soyuz spacecraft carrying American Reid Wiseman, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, of Germany, and cosmonaut Maxim Suraev.

Following field medical checks, Mastracchio, Wakata and Tyurin were to be flown by helicopter to Karaganda. Mastracchio and Wakata will board a NASA jet transport for Houston, Tex., and NASA's Johnson Space Center. Meanwhile, Tyurin will fly to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia to begin his post mission debriefs and physical reconditioning following more than six months of weightlessness.

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