- Bill Ingalls/NASA
A US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts strapped themselves inside a Russian Soyuz capsule and flew away from the International Space Station, landing just after sunrise in Kazakhstan.
Station commander Jeff Williams, with NASA, and flight engineers Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, both with Russia’s Roscosmos agency, pulled away from the station at 5:51 p.m. ET Tuesday as the ships sailed 258 miles over eastern Mongolia, said NASA mission commentator Rob Navias.
“I will certainly miss this view!” Williams wrote on Twitter earlier on Tuesday, posting a picture of sunlight glinting off the planet. “Vast gratitude toward my crewmates, ground teams, supporting friends, and family.”
I will certainly miss this view! Vast gratitude toward my crewmates, ground teams, supporting friends, and family. pic.twitter.com/op9vFyWSFT
— Jeff Williams (@Astro_Jeff) September 6, 2016
Right on the ‘bullseye’
- Bill Ingalls/NASA
There’s always a chance something can go (terribly) wrong during a spacecraft landing, but Tuesday night’s was right on the “bullseye,” NASA’s Dan Huot said in a phone call on the livestream from Kazakhstan.
The gumdrop-shaped capsule undocked from the ISS at 8:02 p.m. ET, starting an approximately three-hour descent.
A couple hours after undocking, the capsule fired its thrusters to fall out of orbit. When it reached 400,000 feet above the Earth, the planet’s atmosphere drastically slowed down the Soyuz – from about 17,250 mph to less than 600 mph.
Around 9 p.m. ET, the parachutes deployed and further reduced the Soyuz‘s speed from about 515 mph to roughly 7 mph.
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) September 7, 2016
A quick engine burst then safely landed the capsule near the Kazakh city of Zhezkazgan at 7:13 a.m. local time on Wednesday, which was 9:13 p.m. Tuesday on the East Coast.
The Soyuz landed on its side, but that actually made hauling the astronauts out of the spaceship a little easier.
Astronauts are typically a little weak and woozy after returning from the microgravity of the ISS and after pulling so many G-forces upon their return, so they usually need help getting out of the car-sized capsule. Doctors are always on hand to evaluate them once they get out.
A record-breaking mission
The mission comes the same day a US space probe was cleared for launch on Thursday to collect and return samples from an asteroid in hopes of learning more about the origins of life on Earth and perhaps elsewhere in the solar system, NASA said.
Williams, 58, returns to Earth with a career total of 534 days in orbit, more time than any other astronaut in US history and 14th in the world.
— NASA (@NASA) September 7, 2016
The Russians remain champions of long-duration spaceflight, with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka currently the world record-holder with 878 days in space over five missions.
Before leaving the station, Williams turned over command of the $100 billion outpost, a project of 15 nations, to cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin, who remains aboard the station with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Japan’s Takuya Onishi.
“We’ll be missing you here,” Ivanishin said during a change-of-command ceremony on Monday. “Have fun riding though the atmosphere … and have a very safe and exceptionally soft landing.”
A replacement crew is due to launch on Sept. 23 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
A high price tag
The US is paying Russia around $70 million to get Williams home.
That’s how much it costs to send one NASA astronaut to and from the space station now, according to a new report that NASA’s Office of Inspector General released on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016.
- Skye Gould/Business Insider
Thursday also happened to be the day that an unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad just before a routine test.
SpaceX and Boeing are both trying to prove they can launch NASA atronauts from American soil again, but they are at least three years behind schedule, according to the report. The US has had to rely on Russia to ferry our astronauts to and from the floating research lab ever since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011.
Obviously, explosions like SpaceX’s could further delay matters, though NASA told Business Insider it was “too early to tell whether Thursday’s incident will impact their development schedules.”
The cost-per-seat should be about $58 million once SpaceX and Boeing develop their astronaut-ready spaceships, Business Insider’s Dave Mosher reports.
That’s still a high price tag, but at least it would be going to American companies instead of a foreign government.
Reuters contributed reporting.