Record-setting Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams along with two fellow cosmonauts safely returned to Earth today from the ISS, touching down on the steppes of Kazakhstan, after spending four months in orbit. Williams, who commanded the International Space Station's Expedition 33 mission, and two astronauts, Flight Engineers Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide, touched down in the dark, chilly expanses in the town of Arkalyk on board the Russian Soyuz capsule at 0726 IST. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during the landing commentary, "The crew is home." Williams, 47, Russian cosmonaut Malenchenko and Japanese astronaut Hoshide sported broad smiles after being extracted from their capsule.
They sat in reclining seats under thick blankets to stay warm in the frigid cold before being moved to a inflatable medical tent for post-landing checks. The crew's physical condition was "normal" after the landing, a mission control spokesman was quoted by RIA Novosti news agency as saying. Some of the Soyuz's landing activities occurred a few seconds late, causing it to overshoot its landing site, but Russian recovery teams were able to compensate for the change during the descent, Navias said. The return of Williams, Hoshide and Malenchenko wrapped up a 127-day space journey, including 125 days spent aboard the ISS, since their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 15 this year. Williams, now has spent a total of 322 days in space during her two long-duration missions. She previously served aboard the ISS as an Expedition 14/15 flight engineer from December 9, 2006, to June 22, 2007. That makes her the second most experienced female astronaut in history, behind NASA's Peggy Whitson (who spent 377 days in space during two station flights). Williams now also holds the record for spacewalking time for female astronauts.
Williams has a total of 50 hours and 40 minutes of spacewalking time over seven spacewalks, including the three she conducted during Expeditions 32 and 33. Williams became the second female commander of the station when she took charge earlier this year. Williams, an avid runner, ran the first triathlon in space during the mission, which also featured three spacewalks and the first official cargo delivery by a robotic Dragon spacecraft built by the US company SpaceX. Weather at the landing site was overcast and freezing, with temperatures of 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 degrees Celsius), though it felt like 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17 degrees Celsius) with the wind, Navias said. The Soyuz capsule landed on its side, a common configuration, and recovery teams worked quickly to retrieve the astronauts due to the cold weather.
Three astronauts remain on board the ISS and will return next year. This was the second trip into space for Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who visited the station as an STS-124 mission specialist aboard space shuttle Discovery in 2008. Russian Soyuz Commander Malenchenko wrapped up his fifth spaceflight for a total of 642 days in space, placing him seventh on the all-time endurance list. Earlier, the trio bid farewell to their fellow astronauts at the ISS, Flight Engineers Kevin Ford, Evgeny Tarelkin and Oleg Novitskiy. The trio undocked from the Rassvet module of the ISS yesterday. Williams, who commanded the station's Expedition 33 mission, turned control of the outpost over to Ford on Saturday. Three additional Expedition 34 flight engineers, NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, are scheduled to launch from Baikonur on December 19 and dock to the station two days later for a five-month stay. Hadfield will become the first Canadian to command the station when Ford, Novitskiy and Tarelkin depart, marking the start of Expedition 35.
The command change on Saturday marked the start of the station's Expedition 34 mission by Ford and Russian cosmonauts Novitskiy and Tarelkin, who arrived at the station in late October. "I think we've left this ship in good shape and I'm honoured to hand it over to Kevin," Williams told Ford before presenting gifts to Expedition 34 crew in an emotional exchange. "As you can see, we have a great crew up her, us who are going home very shortly and the ones who are taking over. The ship's in good hands," Williams said. After the Soyuz, returning the Expedition 33 crew to Earth, undocked from the space station on Sunday, Ford radioed NASA's Mission Control center to say he was eager for his own mission. The Expedition 33 crew, he added, "kept the ship in shape." "It was a beautiful departure," Ford said of the Soyuz undocking. "It was just beautiful to watch the ship fly away," he said. Ford and his crew were able to watch a live video feed of NASA's coverage of the Soyuz landing. A camera on the space station's exterior also captured a dramatic view of the Soyuz capsule's super-hot plasma trail as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere.