April 9, 2006

Brazil, Russia-US Space Station Crew Back to Earth

By Shamil Zhumatov

NEAR ARKALYK, Kazakhstan -- Brazil's first astronaut landed safely in the Kazakh steppe on Sunday, returning from a 10-day trip in space with a Russian-U.S. crew that spent six months on board the International Space Station.

"Soyuz has made a soft landing," a mission control official in Moscow said after the small Soyuz capsule, charred black from re-entry into the atmosphere, bumped down in northern Kazakhstan's steppe.

Russian military helicopters converged on the landing site in a pre-dawn recovery mission.

Marcos Pontes, a 43-year-old Brazilian Air Force pilot, fulfilled a childhood dream in becoming the first Brazilian in space. He returned to Earth with American Bill McArthur and Russian Valery Tokarev on board Soyuz.

The crew were pulled from their cramped capsule and allowed to rest in special chairs, swaddled in animal skins and blankets to fend off the early morning chill as they breathed their first fresh air and sipped hot tea.

"I am very happy," Pontes, who had taken a Brazilian soccer team jersey to space with him to bring his team luck in this summer's World Cup, said.

"I want to say: thank you for everything."

He waved a small Brazilian flag and beamed at photographers as he recovered from the landing in Soyuz, which uses parachutes and "soft landing" rockets fired just before it bumps down to slow its helter-skelter descent.

The crew left the space station just three hours earlier. McArthur and Tokarev have been replaced by Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams, the new crew for the orbiting station for the next six months.

As the sun rose over the Kazakh steppe near the town of Arkalyk, Russian space officials moved the three returnees to a bright orange inflatable field hospital for medical checks before their helicopter and then plane flight to Moscow.

Russia's Soyuz spacecraft have become the most reliable means of getting to and from the International Space Station.

But at the time of McArthur's launch six months ago, there was no fixed plan for his ride home. Russia's original agreement to supply Soyuz rides for American crewmembers ended with the return of McArthur's predecessor in October 2005.

U.S. legislators agreed to lift a ban on the purchase by NASA of space services and hardware from Russia. The ban was enacted due to concerns that Russia was helping Iran develop nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.

U.S. occupancy of the space station would have come to an end if NASA had not been granted a waiver to buy Russian space services.

NASA's own transport to the space station, the three-vehicle shuttle fleet, has only flown one marred mission since the Columbia burned up on re-entry into the atmosphere in 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.

NASA hopes to return the shuttle fleet fully to flight in July following additional work on the fuel tanks.

(Additional reporting by Meg Clothier in Moscow)