NEAR ARKALYK, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A Soyuz capsule carrying a U.S. space tourist and two Russians bumped down safely in Kazakhstan on Friday, ending a string of mishaps on previous landings that have raised concerns about its safety.
“I feel great. I feel very good. Re-entry was perfectly smooth,” a smiling Richard Garriott, who paid $35 million for his 12-day journey into space, told Reuters after a Russian recovery team extracted him from the capsule.
Charred black from its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the craft slowed its descent with a large parachute and fired special gunpowder engines to cushion its landing.
It came to rest in a puff of dust in a field 80 km (50 miles) north of the town of Arkalyk at 0336 GMT as planned.
A NASA Television live feed from a mission control center in Moscow described it as a flawless on-target landing.
Its success was a relief for Russian and U.S. officials who have been worried about the landings after the capsule malfunctioned twice over the past year, subjecting crews to dangerous “ballistic” re-entries.
A ballistic landing is steeper than a normal one and subjects crews to massive gravitational forces. A South Korean astronaut said she feared death during such a landing in April.
“I don’t recall such a perfect landing as this one,” Anatoly Perminov, head of Russia’s space agency Roskosmos, told reporters in Moscow. “We did everything that was possible and more, and the landing was just ideal. The crew feel fine.”
After the touch down, recovery teams surrounded the capsule, opened the hatch and extracted the cosmonauts as the first rays of the morning sun lit up the barren steppes of Kazakhstan.
Garriott, a U.S. video game magnate, came back from the International Space Station alongside Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko.
The American, son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, and Volkov, whose father Alexander was in space when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, are the first second-generation spacemen to fly together — a symbolic act at a time when U.S-Russia relations are particularly tense.
“This was a pinnacle experience and the ride up on Soyuz was phenomenal — what a beautiful machine,” said Garriott, as his father came over and shook his hand at the capsule.
“Of course the International Space Station is astounding and the ride home was everything you know it was advertised to be.”
The crew, wrapped in blankets against freezing temperatures, were carried in special reclining chairs to an inflated medical tent for a scheduled check-up as they acclimatized to Earth’s gravity. NASA said all three were in “excellent shape.”
“How come you look so fresh and ready to go again?” asked Owen Garriott as father and son exchanged warm greetings. Richard replied: “Because I am fresh and ready to go again.”
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Writing by Maria Golovnina in Almaty, editing by Mark Trevelyan