- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

ASTANA, Kazakhstan — A Russian space capsule delivered an American, a Russian and Spaniard home yesterday from the International Space Station, depositing them safely in Kazakhstan and earning a place in the history books as the first Russian spacecraft to both launch and land an American astronaut.

The bell-shaped Soyuz thumped down beneath a parachute at 5:40 a.m. Moscow time near Arkalyk in north-central Kazakhstan, scorched and smelling of burning metal. Its passengers, American Ed Lu, Russian Yuri Malenchenko and Spaniard Pedro Duque, emerged smiling after their 31/2-hour descent to Earth.

“It is great to be back home,” said Mr. Lu, after Russian workers lifted him — seat and all — from the capsule and covered him in a fur-lined shawl to keep out the cold wind blowing over the steppe.

Mr. Lu had planned to ride to the space station onboard the U.S. Shuttle Atlantis until the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia in February put the American manned space flight program on hold. Since then the smaller, non-reusable Soyuz crafts have become the linchpin of the space station program.

Mr. Lu and Mr. Malenchenko blasted off in the same Soyuz capsule last April for a nearly six-month stay in space, while Mr. Duque arrived eight days ago along with a U.S.-Russian crew. The capsule he rode up will stay with the station until that crew returns.

In May, the first time that American astronauts returned on the Soyuz, a computer malfunction sent the crew on a dive so steep that the astronauts’ tongues rolled back in their mouths. The crew landed so far off-target that more than two hours passed before rescuers knew the men were safe.

This time, everything went mostly as planned.

“We were very fortunate. It was as smooth a landing as could have been hoped for,” said Gen. Vladimir Popov, who heads the team responsible for Russia’s space search and rescue operations. NASA spokesman Ron Navias agreed. “It was a dream landing. It is almost as if they hit the X-mark on the ground,” he said.

The operation was marred only by the inadvertent pushing of a button by one of the space capsule occupants during the undocking, which caused the space station to rotate 25 degrees, and it required a large expenditure of fuel to correct the alignment.

NASA, still getting used to its astronauts landing on foreign ground, had requested a medically equipped U.S. Air Force C-17 to stand by in the Kazakh capital Astana.

Additionally, this Soyuz was equipped with satellite phones and a global-positioning satellite system — courtesy of NASA — so if the crew had landed off course and communications systems were damaged, as happened in May, they would still have been able to phone in their location.

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