Soyuz TMA-16M commander Gennady Padalka, the world's most experienced spaceman, smiles as he chats with support crews after returning to Earth from the International Space Station. Padalka has now logged 878.5 days in space over five missions, more than two months longer than the previous record holder.
Three space station crew members - two short-timers completing a 10-day flight and a veteran cosmonaut who has logged a world record 879 days aloft over five missions - undocked from the International Space Station and returned to Earth Friday, landing safely on the steppe of Kazakhstan to close out a problem-free flight.
With veteran commander Gennady Padalka strapped into the descent module's center seat, flanked on the left by European Space Agency flight engineer Andreas Mogensen and on the right by Kazakh cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov, the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft separated from the aft port of the station's Zvezda module at 5:29 p.m. EDT (GMT-4).
"Goodbye, station, " one of the departing crew members radioed.
After moving a safe distance away from the lab complex, Padalka monitored a programmed four-minute 42-second firing of the spacecraft's braking rockets that slowed the ship by 286 mph, just enough to drop the far side of its orbit deep into Earth's atmosphere on a trajectory targeting central Kazakhstan.
The Soyuz TMA-16M crew module touches down in Kazakstan after a problem-free re-entry.Twenty-three minutes later, just above the discernible atmosphere, the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft's three modules separated and the central crew compartment, oriented heat shield first, continued the descent. After exiting the zone of peak heating, the spacecraft's large orange-and-white parachute deployed.
"We are coming back to Earth, to our hospitable planet, " Padalka said as the spacecraft descended, visible in spectacular video shot by the Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency.
Moments later, the crew compartment settled to a jarring rocket-assisted touchdown at 8:51:36 p.m. EDT (6:51 a.m. Saturday local time), tilting over on its side.
Russian recovery forces stationed nearby rushed to the landing site to help the returning station fliers get out of the cramped descent module for initial medical checks and satellite phone calls home to family and friends.
Resting comfortably in recliners near the charred descent module, all three crew members appeared healthy and in good spirits, smiling and chatting with support crews and enjoying fresh apples and tea.
After more extensive medical checks, Padalka, Mogensen and Aimbetov, only the third Kazakh to fly in space, were scheduled to fly by helicopter to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, for an official welcoming ceremony with President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
From there, Mogensen was expected to depart aboard a European Space Agency aircraft while Padalka and Aimbetov were to fly back to Star City near Moscow for debriefing and rehabilitation.