Wintry conditions in southern Kazakhstan greeted three U.S. and Russian astronauts as they descended to Earth late Monday, after 166 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station.
Helicopter borne Russian recovery forces greeted the capsule within minutes of the touchdown, extracting the three men in by-the-book fashion.
“I feel great,” said a grinning Hopkins as he reclined briefly on the snowy grounds outside the capsule while wrapped in blankets to ward off temperatures that hovered just above 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Earlier Monday, a Russian State Commission considered delaying the descent because of the blowing snow and cold temperatures but finally approved the on-time undocking of the capsule from the ISS just after 8 p.m., ET. However, officials trimmed from 12 to four the number of recovery helicopters allowed to support the recovery and limited the operation to essential personnel only.
Kotov, Ryazanskiy and Hopkins were loaded aboard all terrain vehicles quickly after the landing for a short drive to waiting helicopters and a flight to Karaganda, the staging area.
There, the three men were to part ways for the first time in 5½ months, with Hopkins boarding a NASA jet transport for Houston, Tex. Kotov and Ryanzanskiy were flown to Star City, Russia, where they, too, will begin a supervised rehabilitation to re-acclimate to gravity.