Leaving six crewmates behind in orbit, a Russian commander, his NASA co-pilot and a first-time flier from the United Arab Emirates undocked from the International Space Station early Thursday, executed a fiery plunge back to Earth and landed safely on the steppe of Kazakhstan.
Helped out of the cramped Soyuz descent module by waiting recovery crews, all three appeared healthy and in good spirits as they rested in recliners near their spacecraft, undergoing initial medical checks and chatting with friends and family by satellite telephone as they began re-adjusting to the unfamiliar tug of gravity.It was a picture-perfect ending for a trip that began at 3:37 a.m. ET when the Soyuz MS-12/58S spacecraft undocked from the space station’s Russian Rassvet module.Strapped into the Soyuz’s central crew compartment were vehicle commander Alexey Ovchinin, NASA flight engineer Nick Hague and “spaceflight participant” Hazzaa Ali Almansoori. Ovchinin and Hague, launched to the station on March 14, were closing out a 203-day mission while Almansoori, a guest cosmonaut who arrived at the outpost September 25, was wrapping up a relatively short eight-day visit.
After moving the Soyuz a safe distance away from the station, Ovchinin and Hague monitored a four-minute, 42-second rocket firing starting at 6:06 a.m. The braking burn was designed to slow the ship by about 286 mph, just enough to drop the far side of the orbit deep into the atmosphere for a landing in Kazakhstan.The rocket firing went off without a hitch and a half hour later, just before atmospheric entry, the three modules making up the Soyuz MS-12/58S spacecraft separated as planned. The crew module, the only one equipped with a protective heat shield, then plunged back to a parachute-and-rocket-assisted landing near the town of Dzhezkazgan, touching down at 6:59 a.m. (4:59 p.m. local time).Russian recovery teams, NASA personnel and UAE officials stationed nearby welcomed the crew back to Earth with fresh fruit and water. After more detailed medical checks, Ovchinin and Almansoori planned to head back to Star City near Moscow while Hague boarded a NASA jet in Karaganda for the long flight back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.Left behind in orbit aboard the space station was the six-member Expedition 61 crew, made up of Italian commander Luca Parmitano, cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Skripochka and NASA astronauts Christina Koch, Drew Morgan and Jessica Meir.They face one of the busiest schedules in recent memory with up to a dozen spacewalks planned by the end of the year — five to install fresh batteries in the station’s solar power system, five and possibly six to repair a $2 billion particle physics experiment and one to carry out maintenance on the Russian segment of the lab complex.The first battery swap-out spacewalk, with Koch and Morgan, is planned for Sunday.The station crew may also welcome a U.S. commercial crew ship to the station. Boeing and SpaceX are in the final stages of readying ferry craft for launch that NASA is counting on to end the agency’s sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz to carry astronauts to and from the station.