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Soyuz crew safe after anxious wait

Bowersox, right, and Budarin arriving in the Kazakh capital Astana for the ride back to Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside Moscow.
Bowersox, right, and Budarin arriving in the Kazakh capital Astana for the ride back to Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside Moscow.

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KOROLEV, Russia (CNN) -- Two U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut are safely back on Earth after rescue teams lost track of their Soyuz craft in a remote area of Kazakhstan for a nerve-wracking few hours, NASA said.

Rescuers on board the first of several helicopters that arrived at the landing site, about 440 km (275 miles) short of the targeted zone in the central Asian state, said the three crew members were in good health, according to Kyle Herring, a spokesman for the U.S. space agency.

He added that their capsule was on its side, having apparently been dragged several meters by its main parachute.

The Russian space agency helicopters needed to refuel so arrived more than four hours after the Soyuz landed and two hours after a search plane spotted the crew and capsule.

A helicopter carrying NASA Flight Surgeon Michael Duncan and a special medical tent was still on its way to the scene, NASA said.

Aircraft searched for the capsule, which was scheduled to touch down at 8:07 a.m. (0207 GMT) on Sunday, for two hours before a Russian search plane finally picked up its radio beacon and traced it to the landing site. The crew was seen waving at the plane with the capsule hatch opened.

They were to be flown to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, for medical exams and then on to the headquarters of the Russian space program, Star City, for a reunion with family and NASA officials.

This was the first time American astronauts have landed in a non-U.S. spacecraft, made necessary by the grounding of the shuttle program following the Columbia disaster.

That tragedy delayed the return of astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin for two months. The three were supposed to return on the next shuttle mission after Columbia, said NASA spokesman John Ira Petty.

The three-man crew launched November 23 and spent 161 days in space. They left 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. Lu and Malenchenko will stay for about six months, the longest stay aboard the ISS.

The capsule that landed Sunday is a new version of the Soyuz and features more computerized avionics and additional rockets but has a previously untested re-entry guidance system.

Pettit (L), Budarin (C) and Bowersox spent more than five months on the ISS.
Pettit (L), Budarin (C) and Bowersox spent more than five months on the ISS.

Because landing in a Soyuz is generally bumpier than in a shuttle, Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin sat 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 4 Gs, or four times the force of gravity.

With the American shuttles grounded by the Columbia disaster, the Soyuz capsules are the only current way back to Earth for crewmembers on the International Space Station.

Though U.S. astronauts have previously gone into space on a Soyuz capsule, this is the first time any have landed in one. U.S. tycoon Dennis Tito landed aboard a Soyuz following his ride in 2001, but he was a paying "space tourist," not an astronaut

Finding out what caused this Soyuz capsule to land so far off course will be crucial before another Soyuz mission can fly.

The journey 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.

Before the start of the space shuttle program in the early 1980s, U.S. astronauts aboard capsules would land under parachute in the ocean.

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