Russian space capsule carrying three-man crew returns to Earth from space station

A Russian space capsule parachuted to a soft landing on the slushy Kazakh steppes Monday, gently depositing an Italian, a Russian and an American back on Earth after their mission on the international space station.

Helicopters spotted the TMA-5 capsule floating to its designated arrival site about 90 kilometers (60 miles) north of Arkalyk in northern Kazakhstan. The capsule landed upright in the melting snow less than 3Ѕ hours after undocking from the orbiting station, where a new crew stayed behind to prepare to welcome the first U.S. space shuttle flight after a two-year hiatus.

"Rescuers' work was complicated this time by two other factors: soft and slushy soil as well as melting snow, which prevented helicopters from landing next to the Soyuz capsule," Vladimir Popov of the Federal Aerospace Search and Rescue Service was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Russia's space program has been the only way of getting astronauts to the station since the Earth-bound Columbia disintegrated on Feb. 1, 2003. The U.S. space agency 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," NASA spokesman Dean Acosta told Associated Press Television News. "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 Italian Roberto Vittori, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao smiling soon after the landing and donning traditional Kazakh hats while mugging for cameras.

The crew was whisked to a mobile hospital for a quick checkup and then flew to Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside of Moscow. The three delicately stepped down the plane's stairway, waving and grinning to well-wishers.

A cheering crowd and music greeted them in Star City, where they received bread and salt, the traditional Russian welcome offering. Those on hand to celebrate included the wives of all three men and Vittori's 5-month-old son, Enrico.

Vittori, a European Space Agency astronaut, spent eight days on the station, while Sharipov and Chiao had been on the orbiting lab since October. Russian Mission Control said Sharipov reported that the crew felt fine.

The crew will now undergo extensive medical tests over several weeks.

Remaining behind on the station for a six-month mission were Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and American astronaut John Phillips.

Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said that, even after the shuttle resumes flying, Russian Soyuz spacecraft will continue to travel to the station about twice a year to serve as escape vehicles.

IVAN SEKRETAREV, Associated Press Writer

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