ALMATY, Kazakhstan — An international three-man crew onboard a Russian-made Soyuz capsule touched down successfully on the cloudless central Kazakhstan steppe Monday morning after 123 days at the International Space Station.
A fleet of Russian Mi-8 helicopters deployed from towns near the landing site ahead of the capsule's arrival early Monday morning local time to intercept the capsule.
NASA's Joe Acaba and Russian colleagues Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin undocked from the orbiting laboratory some 3 1/2 hours before touchdown.
The Soyuz craft remains the only means for international astronauts to reach the space station since the decommissioning of the U.S. Shuttle fleet in 2011.
The size of the three-person complement currently at the space station will be doubled when they are joined next month by U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin.
Padalka, who piloted the Soyuz craft back to Earth, was the first to be pulled out of the capsule, which rolled onto its side after coming down softly in the flat Kazakh countryside some 85 kilometers (50 miles) north of the town of Arkalyk.
Upon their return, astronauts are typically lifted onto reclining chairs to ensure comfortable acclimatization after months of living in gravity-free conditions.
Looking relaxed and smiling broadly while sipping a mug of tea, Padalka waved at cameras that descended on the site almost immediately after landing.
With this mission complete, Padalka becomes the fourth most seasoned space traveler, having spent 711 days in space over four missions.
"I feel great," Padalka told attending recovery staff, before thanking colleagues for their assistance in his mission.
Acaba, who followed Revin out of the prone Soyuz capsule, gave the thumbs up sign as he was being lifted to his reclining chair and said: "It's good to be home."