Russian Yuri Malenchenko, American Edward Lu and Pedro Duque of Spain landed in their Soyuz TMA-2 capsule at 02:40 GMT on Tuesday.
 
NASA spokesman Robert Navias told reporters the landing was phenomenal. "It was a dream landing. It's almost as if they (Russians) hit an x-mark on the ground."

A spokesman for the Central Space Control in Moscow said: "They have landed. Everything is fine, soft landing engines have worked. Everything went according to plan."

Previous landing

Technicians said they took steps to prevent a rough "ballistic" landing like that endured by the last team to return from the ISS.

In May, a U.S.-Russian three-man crew in an identical capsule landed hundreds of kilometres off target. Rescuers spent hours searching for crew members, who managed to crawl out of the descent capsule. The ship's radio antenna had been broken.

But on Tuesday both crew and space officials were happy with the landing on a hazy morning in Arkalyk, 330km southwest of the Kazakh capital Astana.
 

Lu said he was looking forward to
seeing his fiance again

Before they were taken to hospital for checks, the astronauts were sat in soft easy chairs. Lu reclined in one in a woolly coat near the blackened capsule.

"The landing went just fine. I am feeling great. It's great to be back home," he said.

Lu was looking forward to seeing his fiancee, who would be waiting for him at Chkalovsky airport near Moscow when he arrived in Russia, Navias said. The first thing he did after landing was ask NASA to call his parents in California to tell them he had landed safely.

Apples

Duque, drinking mineral water and crunching an apple, said: "The landing was very soft, almost like during the training."

Astronauts are usually given apples, a symbol of Kazakhstan, after landings in the country.

Malenchenko drank tea from a large mug. "Everything went according to schedule," he said.

General Vladimir Popov, commander of Russian space rescuers, said: "One could not wish for the landing to go better."