A Soyuz craft left its docking port at the international space station on Sunday, starting a return trip to Earth with two Russian cosmonauts and Malaysia's first space traveler aboard.
The capsule was to bring back Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov after a six-month stint at the station, along with Malaysian Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, who arrived at the orbital outpost Oct. 12.
The Soyuz briefly fired thrusters to distance itself from the station after leaving its berth on schedule at 3:14 EDT, said Valery Lyndin, spokesman for Russian Mission Control outside Moscow.
It was scheduled to touch down about 50 miles north of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, about three hours later, Lyndin said.
Despite making an off-target landing, three of the International Space Station's (ISS) latest visitors have safely returned to Earth today, making room aboard the orbital laboratory for NASA's soon-to-launch space shuttle crew.
Expedition 15 cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov as well as Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, landed today at about 6:36 a.m. (1036 GMT) inside of a Soyuz crew capsule. Nine Russian transport helicopters swept in to greet the spaceflyers shortly after they touched down on the chilly steppes of Kazakhstan.
"All crew members have been recovered from the crew module and are feeling quite well," Russian mission managers said following the worrisome descent and landing.
"I'd like to stay in space a little bit longer. I like space," said Kotov, former ISS flight engineer and Soyuz pilot, shortly before undocking from the space station around 3:14 a.m. EDT (0714 GMT) this morning.
Shukor, an orthopedic surgeon selected from 11,000 applicants to become Malaysia's first astronaut, spent 11 days in space and nine aboard the ISS. Kotov and Yurchikhin each spent about 185 days in space, and recently handed control of the ISS over to Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson-the first female astronaut ever to command a space station.
The Soyuz crew's descent lasted about an hour following a deorbit burn at 5:37 a.m. EDT (0937 GMT), which allowed Earth's gravity to take over.
About halfway through the free-fall to Earth, however, the crew notified ground controllers that the Soyuz had entered into a ballistic descent. The steeper, undesirable trajectory caused the crew to land about 216 miles (347 kilometers) short of their intended landing site.
Expedition 6 crew members experienced a similar problem on May 3, 2003 with their Soyuz descent, but recovery crews took several hours to locate the capsule and extract the spaceflyers.
Russian mission managers announced in a press conference shortly after landing that they intend to fully investigate the cause of the Expedition 15's dangerous ballistic descent.
U.S. spaceflyer Clayton Anderson, the one remaining member of the Expedition 15 crew, will stay in orbit as part of the Expedition 16 crew until STS-120 crew member Daniel Tani arrives next week. In a space-to-ground interview, Anderson told SPACE.com how he will miss his "brothers" in space and is looking forward to seeing them again once he lands.
"It's been a wonderful time for me up here with you guys," Anderson told his Expedition 15 crewmates Friday. "I will miss you, but I will see you back on Earth."
"Sooner or later, everything good has to end," said former ISS commander Yurchikhin, who frequently referred to the station as his 'home' in space. "It was a great and very interesting flight."
Shukor performed physiology and Earth observation experiments, shared traditional Malaysian food with his ISS crewmates and, as a devout Muslim, observed the holy month of Ramadan while in orbit. He also expressed his sadness at ending an 11-day mission in space.
"I feel wonderful," he recently told reporters from the ISS. "I love it here and I don't really want to go back (to Earth) yet."
With today's successful landing, the space station is now clear to receive seven more visiting astronauts-and a new orbital room-from NASA's STS-120 mission later this week. Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Pamela Melroy, Discovery's crew will deliver the new Harmony connecting node that will lay the foundation for future international laboratories at the ISS.
"I'm definitely ready for the busy construction ahead," Whitson told SPACE.com from the ISS, adding that the station will only get bigger during her flight. "I'm looking forward to, during our expedition, building up the inside."
Kotov told reporters this week that he tried to spend some of his free time just appreciating the view of the Earth and hopes to leave a healthy space station behind for the Expedition 16 crew.
"We got this station from the previous crew in good condition," he said. "We tried to keep it as such as we pass our home to a new crew."
Space shuttle Discovery and its seven-person crew are slated to shoot into space from Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 23 at 11:38 a.m. EDT (1538 GMT) and arrive at the space station on Oct. 25.