April 8, 2006

International Crew Returning From Space

KOROLYOV, Russia -- A capsule carrying Brazil's first astronaut, along with a Russian and an American, separated early Sunday from the international space station and began hurtling toward Earth.

American astronaut Bill McArthur, Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and Brazilian Marcos Pontes were strapped tightly into a Soyuz TMA-7 capsule for the bone-jarring journey home. They were set to touch down in the steppes of Kazakhstan early Sunday.

Space officials at Russia's Mission Control at Korolyov, outside Moscow, intently watched a large screen that showed the capsule drawing back from the space station and going off into the blackness of space. They were to maintain sporadic radio communication with the crew as it traveled toward Earth.

McArthur and Tokarev had spent more than six months on the space station. They were replaced by Russian commander Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. flight engineer Jeff Williams, who arrived at the station together with Pontes on April 1. Pontes had traveled to the station for a weeklong stint.

The American space program has depended on the Russians for cargo and astronaut delivery since the February 2003 Columbia explosion grounded the shuttle fleet. The shuttle Discovery visited the station last July but problems with the external fuel tank's foam insulation have cast doubt on when shuttles might return to flying.

More than 15 helicopters and other aircraft and some 150 salvage crew were deployed to the town of Arkalyk in northern Kazakhstan, the area where the Soyuz capsule is expected to land, said Vladimir Popov, the head of the Russian space search and rescue service, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

After landing and leaving the capsule - sometimes on their own, sometimes with the aid of ground crew - the astronauts are given quick medical checks, welcomed at a Kazakh ceremony and then flown to the Star City space training complex outside Moscow for further medical examinations.