Soyuz spacecraft returns Russians and American

Author: By Steve Gutterman, AP

The Soyuz TMA-12 capsule landed at 9:37 a.m. local time (0337GMT), about 55
miles north of Arkalyk in north-central Kazakhstan, Russian Mission Control
spokesman Valery Lyndin told The Associated Press.

Search and recovery crews buzzed in on Mi-8 helicopters and extracted Richard
Garriott, Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko from the capsule, which landed on
its side on the brushy surface under a clear sky.

“What a great ride that was,” said Garriott, an American computer game
designer who paid some $30 million for a 10-day stay on the space station.
Sitting in an armchair and wrapped in a blue blanket against the
near-freezing temperature on the steppe, he smiled broadly.

“This is obviously a pinnacle experience,” Garriott said in televised comments.

Garriott was greeted by his father, Owen Garriott, a retired NASA astronaut
who flew on the U.S. space station Skylab in 1973.

“Hey, Papa-san,” said Richard Garriott, 47. The pair shook hands.

“How come you look so fresh and ready to go?” Owen Garriott, 77, asked his son.

“Because I’m fresh and ready to go ? again,” he replied.

Not right away, though.

“I’m looking forward to some fresh food and to calling my loved ones,” said
Garriott, who lives in Austin, Texas, and was seen off by his girlfriend and
brother, among others, when he rocketed up to the station on another Soyuz
craft on Oct. 12.

“I’ve got my father here, but I’ve got other family back home I want to get a
hold of.”

Volkov sat next to Garriott. The son of a cosmonaut, he beat out Garriott as
the first human being to follow a parent into space when he flew up to the
space station six months ago. Kononenko, who also spent 199 days in space,
was the last out of the capsule and could not be seen in the TV footage.

The head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, Anatoly Perminov, said on
state-run Vesti-24 television that Kononenko had a tougher time than his
crewmates during the descent but “feels good now.” It was the first space
mission for all three men.

The uneventful descent was a relief for space officials ? and the crew ? after
technical problems caused unusually steep “ballistic descents” for the last
two returning crews, putting them hundreds of kilometers (miles) off course
and subjecting them to stronger gravitational force than in a usual.

On a Soyuz returning in May, the malfunction of an explosive bolt delayed the
separation of the re-entry capsule from the rest of the ship. It forced the
crew ? including a U.S. astronaut and South Korea’s first space traveler ?
to endure a rough ride as the gyrating capsule descended facing the wrong

It took nearly half an hour for search helicopters to locate the capsule,
which landed some 20 minutes late and 420 kilometers (260 miles) off target,
and determine the crew was unharmed.

Last October, a computer glitch sent Malaysia’s first astronaut and two
Russian cosmonauts on a steeper-than-normal path during their return to

Russian space officials said changes had been made to equipment and computer
programming to prevent another ballistic descent, but they were clearly
relieved at Friday’s on-time, on-target landing.

The Soyuz TMA-12’s module separated without a hitch before it entered the
atmosphere, and a series of parachutes gradually slowed its speed from 230
meters (755 feet) per 5 second to about 1.5 meters (5 feet) per second.

“I can’t recall a more ideal landing,” Perminov said.

Garriott, who created the Ultima computer game series, spent time on the
station conducting experiments ? including some whose sponsors helped pay
for a trip he said cost him a large chunk of his wealth. He also took
pictures of the Earth’s surface to measure changes since his father did the
same 35 years ago.

Garriott took a Soyuz up to the 10-year-old station along with U.S. astronaut
Michael Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov, who will stay in orbit
for six months. Also on board is U.S. astronaut Gregory Chamitoff.

The U.S. shuttle Endeavor is due to launch in November and carry equipment
needed for raising the number of astronauts living at the orbiting outpost
from three to six. That transition should occur in the first half of next

The head of the Russian state-controlled RKK Energiya company, which builds
the Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo ships, said today that construction
of ships for the next few missions was on schedule, but further plans could
be jeopardized by a money crunch caused by the nation’s financial crisis.
Vitaly Lopota said the banks had been slow to provide loans to the company,
and he urged the government to quickly earmark funds.

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