Three man crew returns to Earth from the International Space Station

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A U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts safely touched down on the steppes of Kazakhstan on Thursday, completing a 196-day mission that began with the first launch under lockdown conditions.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner landed about 150 kilometers southeast of the Kazakh city of Zhezkazgan at 0254 GMT, showed footage from the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Footage from the landing site showed a seated Cassidy bumping elbows with a crew member at the recovery site and greeting another after leaving the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft before being taken to medical tents before their further travels to Moscow and Houston.

“How are you?” Cassidy asked in Russian, smiling.

The three-man crew had blown off minus the usual fanfare in April with about half of the world population living under national lockdowns required to contain coronavirus spread.

They did not face questions from a press package in Baikonur and were not waved by family and friends – both traditional traditions before the pandemic.

Their pre-flight quarantine was also intensified as they avoided the usual sightseeing trips to Moscow from their training base outside the Russian capital.

Their mission also coincided with the arrival at the space station in May of the first astronauts to jump off Earth for nearly a decade.

The mission, carried out by tycoon Elon Musk’s SpaceX company as part of NASA’s commercial crewing program, has helped fuel talk of a new “space race” between a number of countries.

But Russia’s Roscosmos, which enjoyed a lucrative monopoly on travel to and from the space station from 2011, remains the fastest player in the game in terms of travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley’s May trip to the space station and August return to Earth in the SpaceX craft so the couple spend the best part of two days in transit.

Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner’s touchdown on Thursday, on the other hand, came less than three and a half hours after disconnection, while a three-person crew reached the ISS from Baikonur in just three hours and three minutes last week, setting a new absolute record.

Before returning from his third mission in space, former US Navy SEAL Cassidy, 50, tweeted a picture of blood samples that astronauts must submit at various points in their mission, including just before docking.

“What’s the price of a return flight back to Earth? …. 8 blood tubes !! The 7 shown in this picture were taken in the morning to be placed in our freezer, and the 8th will be drawn just before to release for tillage shortly after landing, “wrote sudoku puzzle fan Cassidy.

First-time flyer Vagner was a rare Roscosmos presence on the microblogging platform where most NASA astronauts have a profile.

“Mom, I’m coming home,” the 35-year-old tweeted Wednesday.

Ivanishin, 51, is completing his third mission after NASA’s Kathleen Rubins, with whom he joined the ISS in 2016, arrived for another period aboard the station last Wednesday with Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov of Roscosmos.

The ISS has been a rare example of cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

Members recently reported problems with the oxygen production system, a toilet and the stove for cooking.

But Roscosmos said in a statement Tuesday that the issues were “fully resolved by the crew.”

“All station systems work well and there is no danger to the crew or the ISS.”

Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the orbital laboratory being permanently occupied by humans, but the station is expected to be shut down in the next decade due to structural fatigue.

( Jowharwith AFP)