Soyuz capsule returns after six month space mission
International Space Station (ISS) crew members carried back after Soyuz landing
A Soyuz space capsule has touched down safely in Kazakhstan, marking the end of their 193-day mission to the International Space Station.
Around a dozen recovery helicopters zeroed into the vast uncultivated land mass, where NASA astronaut Donald Pettit, Russia's Oleg Kononenko and Dutchman Andre Kuipers landed in the Russian-made capsule.
Russian space officials quickly surrounded the craft, which performed a perfect upright textbook landing, and erected ladders to begin the process of pulling out the astronauts.
NASA TV reporter Rob Navias described the landing as "a bullseye".
Kononenko was the first to be extracted from the descent module. He looked pale and tired, but medical staff announced him healthy.
Pettit, second out of the module, was heard to say: "It's good to be home."
The three men were hoisted into recliners and posed for photos for a number of minutes before being carried into a tent for further checks.
Writing on his Nasa blog on the eve of his departure from the space station, Pettit wrote: "I only hope that my small efforts here, perhaps adding one grain of sand to the beach of knowledge, will help enable a generation of people in the future to call space 'home.'"
Pettit and his colleagues were part of the team that handled the arrival to the space station last month of Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon capsule.
The SpaceX cargo arrived as part of a test flight and was the first private delivery to reach the $100 billion International Space Station, which is a 15-nation project.
Three other ISS crew members - Russia's Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin and NASA astronaut Joe Acaba - will remain in orbit.
The Soyuz landing took place two days after China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft returned to Earth, ending a mission that put the country's first woman in space.
Although China is far from catching up with the United States and Russia, the Shenzhou 9 marked China's fourth manned space mission since 2003 and comes as budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
The retirement of the US shuttle fleet has left Russia's Soyuz spacecraft as the only means to deliver crews to the orbiting laboratory.
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