Space Station Crew Returns Home

Italian ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori, left, Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov, center, and American NASA astronaut Leroy Chao shake hands shortly upon their arrival to the town of Arkalyk, northern Kazakhstan, early Monday, April 25, 2005. Chao and Sharipov returned to earth after a half-year stint on the International Space Station while Vittory spent 10 days at the station after arriving with a replacement crew. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
A Russian space capsule carrying an Italian, a Russian and an American hurtled safely home to Earth from the International Space Station on Monday, landing softly on the marshy Central Asian steppes in the early morning darkness.

Search-and-rescue helicopters spotted the capsule floating under a parachute toward its designated arrival site about 56 miles north of the Kazakh town of Arkalyk. The TMA-5 capsule then landed upright in the slush less than 3½ hours after undocking from the orbiting space station, where a new crew stayed behind to prepare to welcome the first space shuttle flight after a two-year hiatus.

Russia's space program has been the only way of getting astronauts to the station since the Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, sparking a suspension of shuttle flights. NASA is hoping to restart shuttle flights sometime next month.

"We have spent so much time as an organization and as an agency coming together ... (to) make sure that nothing like that happens again," Dean Acosta, the head of NASA public affairs, told Associated Press Television News while referring to the Columbia disaster. "Again, we are very optimistic that we will be able ... to get the shuttle back where it needs to be — which is up in space."

State television showed footage of rescue workers pulling Italian Roberto Vittori, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao from the capsule after the landing. A seated and smiling Sharipov later wore a tall, white felt hat and posed for cameras in his first moments back on Earth.

"We're pretty excited to come home," Chiao told CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood last week. "It's a fantastic mission, six-and-a-half months, it's the first long-duration mission for both of us. For me personally, it's been wonderful but I am anxious to get back and see my wife and family and friends and to be in nature again."

Said Sharipov, "For me, it's been a great flight as well. It was a great adventure, I had a lot of interesting work and I am very satisfied that I was given an opportunity to be able to work on board the international space station."