Russian-U.S. space crew land safely in Kazakh

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Soyuz spacecraft carrying two U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut back to earth from the International Space Station landed safely in Kazakhstan on Friday.

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The spacecraft, containing Russian commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA’s Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker touched down as planned at 0446 GMT north of the remote central Kazakh town of Arkalyk, Russia’s space agency Roskosmos said.

“We have a landing!” flashed the flight monitoring screens at mission control just outside Moscow.

Images of the crew on state television showed Yurchikhin bundled against gusty winds in a blue thermal blanket.

He shut his eyes as doctors checked his pulse and wiped his brow after the Soyuz’s fiery descent through the atmosphere ended his five and half months in space.

Next out of the space capsule, Walker flashed a wide smile and winked at television cameras as she accepted a bouquet of flowers from members of the recovery teams.

ISS Mission commander and US army Colonel Wheelock held up a “Hi Mom!” home-made cardboard greeting for cameras. Grinning widely, he said the descent back to Earth was “everything and more” than he expected.

Roskosmos said in a statement the three crew members were in good health.

Two-time flier US astronaut Scott Kelly, Russia space veteran Alexander Kaleri and rookie flight engineer Oleg Skripochka remain aboard the orbiting outpost -- a $100 billion project shared by 16 nations.

Friday’s textbook landing will help alay concern about dependence on the Russian Soyuz flights after unprecedented trouble undocking during the craft’s last re-entry in October forced the three-member crew to remain an extra day in orbit, scrambling to free jammed latches.

The mishap in a space program that depends on pinpoint accuracy came as NASA is due to mothball its Discovery shuttle program later this year.

With the shuttles’ retirement, NASA has handed Russia responsibility for ferrying the ISS crew, at a cost of $51 million per person.

The shuttle program is ending after 30 years of flights to save on operating costs of about $3 billion a year and refocus on long-distance human space flights to the Moon and Mars.

Speaking to journalists after the landing, Roskomos’s chief said joint international missions to Mars may begin in 2030, but that many countries had renewed their interest in the Moon.

“There is a lot of interest right now in the Moon, after it was discovered that there is water on the poles,” Anatoly Perminov said, according to a Roskomos statement. “Many countries have returned to the idea of building colonies.”

Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Philippa Fletcher