Three cosmonauts undocked from the International Space Station on Thursday and returned to Earth aboard their Soyuz spacecraft, safely landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan to wrap up a 195-day mission.
With outgoing station commander Oleg Artemyev at the controls, flanked on the left by co-pilot Denis Matveev and on the right by Sergey Korsakov, the Soyuz descent module, suspended under a single large orange-and-white parachute, touched down near the town of Dzhezkazgan at 6:57 a.m. EDT (4:57 p.m. local time).
Russian recovery crews were on the scene within minutes to help the returning station fliers out of the cramped Soyuz as they began re-adapting to the unfamiliar pull of gravity after six months in weightlessness.
Mission duration was 194 days and 19 hours, pushing Artemyev's total time in space to 561 days over three station expeditions and moving him up to No. 12 on the list of most experienced cosmonauts and astronauts. It was the first space flight for Matveev and Korsakov.
Matveev looked a bit woozy being helped from the descent module, but Artemyev and Korsakov were all smiles as they chatted with support personnel. After quick medical checks, the cosmonauts were expected to head back to Star City near Moscow for debriefings and reunions with friends and family.
Left behind in orbit were Expedition 68 commander Samantha Cristoforetti and her three SpaceX Crew-4 crewmates Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines and Jessica Watkins, along with Soyuz MS-22/68S cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitry Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio.
Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio replaced Artemyev and his crewmates, arriving at the station on September 21. Replacements for the Crew 4 astronauts - Crew 5 commander Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and cosmonaut Anna Kikina - are expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on October 5, Florida weather permitting.
After about a week helping familiarize their replacements with station operations, Cristoforetti, Lindgren, Hines and Watkins will undock and return to Earth October 12 or 13 to close out a roughly 169-day mission that began with launch from the Kennedy Space Center on April 27.
The launch of Rubio aboard the Soyuz MS-22/68S spacecraft and Kikina aboard the Crew 5 Dragon marked the first such flights under a new agreement between NASA and Roscosmos that's intended to ensure at least one Russian and one American are always on board the station.
Without the agreement, a medical emergency or some other problem that forced a Soyuz or SpaceX crew to depart early could leave an all-U.S. or all-Russian crew behind on station without the expertise to operate the other nation's systems. The seat-swap agreement resolves that potential worry.
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