U.S., European and Russian astronauts descended safely to Earth late Sunday, ending a 166 day mission to the International Space Station that drew to a close with a celebration of the 2014 Winter Games scheduled for Sochi, Russia.
The Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, of Italy, and cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin descended onto the plains of southern Kazakhstan at 9:49 p.m., EST.
The Soyuz crew was greeted quickly by helicopter born Russian search crews, who assisted Nyberg, Parmitano and Yurchikhin from their spacecraft.
The trio also carried with them a ceremonial Olympic torch, which accompanied cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy on a spacewalk outside the 260 mile high space station on Saturday. The torch will make its way toMoscow, then Sochi, where it will be used to light the Olympic flame at the start of the Winter Games on Feb. 7.
The unlit red, blue and silver torch arrived at the station last Thursday aboard a newer Soyuz capsule carrying astronauts Rick Mastracchio, Mikhail Tyurin and Koichi Wakata, a U. S., Russian and Japanese crew, who are beginning six months in orbit as part of the station’s Expedition 38.
Last week’s docking temporarily raised the number of astronauts living and working aboard the space station to nine. The total returned to the customary six as Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano undocked on Sunday at 6:49 p.m., EST
During their 5 ½ months aboard the space station, the trio participated in or supervised dozens of experiments focused on the health of humans in space, biology, biotechnology, physics, education and Earth observation.
They also greeted Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus supply ship. The successful Cygnus operations marked the start of a second U. S.commercial cargo service.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are now handling the re-supply responsibilities once carried out by NASA’s space shuttle.
Parmitano’s first trip to space was also marked by drama. During a July 16th spacewalk with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, the helmet of Parmitano’s NASA space suit flooded with water from a leak within the garment’s personal life support system components.
The former Italian Air Force test pilot made his way back to the safety of the station’s air lock, but the cause of the leak remains under investigation.