A Russian capsule carrying two astronauts and a cosmonaut who had spent nearly half a year aboard the international space station landed in the remote region of Central Asia on Sunday.

As the Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft parachuted through the sky, Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit became the first NASA astronauts to return in a foreign spacecraft and to foreign soil, a historic first for the space agency. Nikolai Budarin was the Russian cosmonaut guiding the craft home.

International Space Station crew all smiles
despite 10 week delay

NASA’s concerns were not only because of the change in arrangements prompted by the Columbia disaster in February, but because the Soyuz is a new model that had never gone through a descent before.

In earlier comments broadcast on Russian television Saturday, Budarin played down the risk of returning in a Soyuz model that had not landed before, saying the differences from the previous model were "only modifications."

"I have made two descents in a Soyuz and there were no problems at all, and I think there won't be any problems this time," he said.

The re-entry went well and Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin made the first re-entry since the shuttle was destroyed over Texas on, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The two NASA flight surgeons on the recovery team brought an incredible amount of medical supplies aboard helicopters that were transporting them from the Kazakh capital Astana to the touchdown spot 250 miles to the southwest.

“The eyes of the American public and Congress and everyone are going to be on this landing," said Dr. J.D. Polk, a flight surgeon specialized in emergency medicine. "We just don't have any acceptance for any risk right now."

Due to the delay caused by the Colombia shuttle disaster, both astronauts spent almost two additional months to their mission, staying five and half months in total. The delay afforded their replacements enough time to arrive aboard another Soyuz.

Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Astronaut Edward Lu arrived safely at the international space station last week for a challenging six-month stay, given the reduced crew size and rationing due to a reduced flight schedule.

Bowersox told the new crewmen after handing over control "you guys have to be the two luckiest guys who come from planet Earth today. Over the next six months you get to live aboard this beautiful ship,” adding, “I'm ready to be relieved."

About 90 minutes into the flight, Russia's cosmonaut training centre chief Pyotr Klimuk spoke to the Soyuz crew from mission control, wishing them success and assuring them everything was ready for their touchdown. A little less than an hour before the scheduled touchdown, the capsule was cued to come out of orbit, and a half-hour later it shed some equipment to ease its reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

After the successful landing, the astronaut said, "we carried out everything we intended to, but most important is that we worked well together as an international crew," he said.

Jim Newman, an astronaut in charge of NASA's human space flight programme in Russia, expects the astronauts to have a difficult time adjusting to the new space reality, as everyone has.

"It's not the space programme that we had hoped because of the tragedy," Newman said, "but we're certainly ready for whatever comes."