Two
Russians and one American returned back to earth this morning after
spending 177 days in earth orbit, living and working aboard the
International Space Station.

Soyuz
TMA18 spacecraft commander and outgoing leader of the Expedition 24
crew, Alexander Skvortsov and flight engineers Tracy Caldwell Dyson and
Mikhail Kornienko touched down upon the desert of Kazakhstan, near the
town of Arkalyk on September 25 at 1:23 am EDT (0523 GMT).

In
space, the orbital outpost flew high off the coast of Japan and over
the western Pacific Ocean as the parachutes of the Soyuz lowered the
craft to the desert floor.

Earlier
in the day, the departing crew of three said farewell to the ongoing
crew of Expedition 25 of Doug Wheelock, Shannon Walker and Fyodor
Yurchikhin, and entered their Soyuz one last time for the trip home.

Hatches were officially closed at 6:35 pm and the trio went to work powering up the crafts systems for undocking.

It was the second try in as many days to undock from the complex.

Docked
to the Russian Poisk module, ground controllers in Moscow had to scrub
the first undocking attempt 24 hours earlier due to an electrical issue
with the sealing of the module’s hatch leading to the Soyuz.

As
controllers counted down the final seconds to undocking, the separation
bolts were released on time and the small spacecraft sailed away from
it’s port-of-call for the last 174 days at 10:02 pm.

As
the two spacecraft flew 222 miles high over the Russia – Mongolia
boarder, Skvortsov slowly guided his ship back away from the station to
prepare for a separation burn which will carry the crew swiftly away.

Firing
it’s engines on time, the Soyuz performed a four minute deorbit burn at
12:31 am today to slow the craft by 259 miles per hour, and allow for
it to drop out of earth orbit during a precise keyhole in space.

Twenty-five
minutes later, the support module attached to the Soyuz crew module was
then jettisoned, exposing the heat shield and setting up the craft’s
change in it’s attitude for reentry.

The
crew’s plunge into the atmosphere gave them their first effects of
gravity since their April 2 launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Recovery
crews aboard ground transports and Russian helicopters were on station
as the module landed with a thud under a huge main chute — kicking up
dirt from it’s impact on a cool late-morning Saturday.

Their
stay aboard the station witnessed two space shuttle visits by Discovery
and Atlantis; one Soyuz crew departure for earth and weeks later an
arrival of the current Soyuz TMA 19 crew; and Caldwell-Dyson and
Wheelock performed three spacewalks in August to replace and install a
needed backup cooling unit for the space station.

The
next crew to launch from Baikonur to the station will be aboard an
upgraded Soyuz TMA 01M on October 7, docking 49 hours later to the
orbital complex.