Soyuz capsule found hundreds of miles off target
NASA: Crew of three apparently in good shape
MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- A Soyuz space capsule carrying two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut appeared to be in "good condition" after it was found well short of its targeted landing zone in a remote area of Kazakhstan, a NASA spokesman said.
The capsule touched down as scheduled at 2:07 a.m. GMT [10:07 p.m. Saturday EDT], spokesman Kyle Herring said. It was spotted more than two hours later about 250 miles [400 kilometers] away from its landing area.
A Russian aircraft spotted the Soyuz capsule, but the helicopters that had been searching for it needed to refuel before making their way to the site southwest of the intended landing zone. NASA's Mission Control said radio contact had been made with the crew members, who appeared to be in good condition.
It will take a few hours for the helicopters to reach the site, which is about 12 miles [19 kilometers] from Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.
It was a historic flight for NASA, marking the first time U.S. astronauts returned to a foreign country and the first time astronauts parachuted to a landing on soil instead of water.
The trip also marked the first time anyone has returned from space since February 1, when the space shuttle Columbia broke up as it re-entered the atmosphere. The three-man crew aboard the Soyuz was scheduled to leave space aboard a shuttle before the fleet was grounded after the Columbia's loss.
The capsule had undocked from the space station at 10:43 p.m. Saturday GMT [6:43 p.m. EDT].
Although U.S. astronauts have previously gone into space on Soyuz capsules, this trip marked the first time any have landed in one, NASA spokesman John Ira Petty said. The astronauts were not the first Americans to land on foreign soil after a trip in space because U.S. tycoon Dennis Tito beat them to that distinction. Tito landed aboard a Soyuz after his ride in 2001, but Petty said Tito was a paying "space tourist," not an astronaut.
Before the start of the space shuttle program in the early 1980s, U.S. astronauts aboard capsules would land under parachute in the ocean.
The Soyuz capsule uses four parachutes and two sets of three rockets to cushion its landing, but the experience can still be uncomfortable.
Because landing in a Soyuz is generally bumpier than in a shuttle, Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin were seated in the Soyuz on custom-built recliners designed to fit their bodies, NASA said. The seats help cushion the impact of landing, which is about four times the normal force of gravity.
They also wore special garments to help prevent blood from pooling in their legs during landing.
In the past, cosmonauts have suffered minor injuries during Soyuz landings, NASA said.
Within minutes of landing, Russian officials took the crew to a portable medical tent, where the men will spend about two hours adapting to gravity in reclining chairs. The crew will then go to Star City, Russia, outside Moscow, for 16 days of medical tests, debriefing and rehabilitation, Petty said.
The three-man crew launched November 23 and will have spent 161 days in space, Petty said.
They leave behind the station's first two-man crew, astronaut Edward Lu and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who are part of "Expedition 7." Petty said the reason for having just two aboard the station is to conserve resources while shuttle flights remain grounded.
"When the shuttle's not flying, we're limited in how much equipment and supplies we can bring to the space station," he said. "And obviously, two people consume less than three."
The smaller number also means the men will not be doing space walks, although they can still carry out the procedure in an emergency.
Lu and Malenchenko will stay about six months, the longest stay aboard the ISS, Petty said. They will return to Earth aboard a Soyuz, but not because of the stand-down in shuttle flights.
"Soyuz capsules have a limited lifespan on orbit, and that works out to be about six months, so these Soyuz capsules have to be replaced," Petty said.
With previous expeditions, "taxi crews" of about three people have launched into space on a Soyuz and docked with the station to bring supplies and perform experiments. They left their Soyuz with the station and returned to Earth in the one from the previous flight up.
"So in the case of the Expedition 7 crew, they become their own taxi crew, taking their own Soyuz up and then taking it back," Petty said.
The two-man crew docked with the station Monday. They went through days of handover activities before the three-man crew departed the station Saturday after a farewell ceremony.