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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Astronauts Make Safe Landing in Slush

APStill weak after their time in space, Vittori, left, Sharipov and Chiao shaking hands shortly after arriving in Arkalyk, northern Kazakhstan, early Monday.
ARKALYK, Kazakhstan -- A Russian space capsule carrying an Italian, a Russian and an American hurtled safely home to Earth from the international space station Monday, landing softly on the marshy Central Asian steppes in the early morning darkness.

Search-and-rescue helicopters spotted the capsule floating under a parachute toward its designated arrival site about 90 kilometers north of the Kazakh town of Arkalyk. The TMA-5 capsule then landed upright in the slush less than 3 1/2 hours after undocking from the orbiting space station.

Russian helicopters and planes had been on call, along with a U.S. medical team, near Arkalyk, but many of the helicopters had to return to town, unable to land on terrain made marshy by melting snow.

Engineers followed the capsule's journey through space on a map projected on a large screen at mission control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, and periodically communicated with the crew as it sped toward Earth.

"Again our Russian colleagues have shown how flexible they can be in the face of such daunting weather conditions in the landing zone to safely recover the crew," William Readdy, the U.S. space agency NASA's associate administrator for space operations, told reporters at mission control.

"Step by step ... we'll continue our steps as partners to complete the international space station and then move on beyond the Earth's orbit," he said.

Italian Roberto Vittori, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao climbed out of the capsule and were whisked to a mobile hospital for a quick checkup; more thorough examinations were conducted after they arrived later Monday at Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside Moscow.

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

Remaining behind on the station were cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and U.S. astronaut John Phillips, whose six-month mission will include welcoming the first space shuttle flight after a two-year hiatus.

Russia's space program has been the only way of getting astronauts to the station since the Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, sparking a suspension of shuttle flights. NASA is hoping to renew shuttle flights sometime next month.

Russian space officials on Monday were relieved to have avoided a repeat of the May 2003 return to Earth by the space station crew, when the Soyuz capsule strayed some 400 kilometers off course due to a computer error, prompting a frantic search over the steppes.

The TMA-5 undocked at 10:44 p.m. Moscow time, after a four-minute delay caused by problems with the hermetic seals on Vittori's spacesuit, mission control officials said. The capsule entered the atmosphere about three hours later, and its parachute opened 15 minutes before the scheduled landing time of 2:07 a.m. Monday.

Mission control spokesman Valery Lyndin said that even after the shuttle resumed flying, Soyuz spacecraft wouldcontinue to travel to and from the station about twice a year because they would serve as escape vehicles.