A U.S.-Russian crew landed safely on Friday in the steppes of Kazakhstan following a stint on the International Space Station and was greeted with extra precautions due to the coronavirus.
Following a stint on the International Space Station, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan and Russian Oleg Skripochka touched down as scheduled at 0516 GMT on Friday. Their Soyuz landing capsule landed under a striped orange-and-white parachute about 150 kilometres southeast of Dzhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan.
The crew returned to Earth exactly 50 years after the Apollo 13 astronauts splashed down in the Pacific after an oxygen tank explosion aborted the moon-landing mission.
“It’s a little bit surreal to think that we’re going back, especially given the situation that’s been unfolding on the ground,” flight engineer Jessica Meir told a reporter Wednesday. “It looks like we are going back to a completely different planet. So it will be certainly an interesting experience for us.”
Because of coronavirus travel restrictions and safety protocols, the U.S. astronauts faced long helicopter rides back to their Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site and then a three-hour overland trip to reach a NASA jet standing by at the nearest approved landing site to carry them home to Houston.
Oleg Skripochka, commander of the Soyuz MS-15/61 spacecraft that carried the trio back to Earth, faced a somewhat easier journey. He planned to catch a Russian jet at the cosmodrome for the flight back to his home in Star City near Moscow.
The long trip back to Earth began at 9:53 p.m. EDT Thursday when Skripochka, Meir and Morgan undocked from the aft port of the station’s Russian Zvezda module, leaving NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner behind aboard the lab complex.
Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin said the three astronauts were feeling well.
Morgan wrapped up a 272-day mission on his first flight into space. He conducted seven spacewalks, four of which were to improve and extend the life of the station’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which looks for evidence of dark matter in the universe.
Meir and Skripochka spent 205 days in space, with Meir carrying out the first three all-women spacewalks with her crewmate Christina Koch, who returned from space in February.
On Friday, Russia’s space corporation Roscosmos said it had 42 coronavirus cases and reported the first deaths. It said two workers who died had tested positive for the virus and another employee, who died of pneumonia, was suspected of having the infection.