Russian, North American astronauts return to earth

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This handout photo released by NASA shows Expedition 59 crew member Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos outside the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft after he, NASA astronaut Anne McClain, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques landed in a remote area near the town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Tuesday. - AFP

By ALEXANDER NEMENOV

DZHEZKAZGAN, KAZAKHSTAN -
The first crew to blast off to the International Space Station following a launch accident that deepened doubts over Russia's space program returned to earth safely on Tuesday.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain, veteran cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos, and Canadian Space Agency record-holder David Saint-Jacques emerged from the space craft to applause from support crews, after touching down near the Kazakh city of Dzhezkazgan.

Live footage from the landing site broadcast on NASA television showed the three sitting in chairs smiling as they were attended to by staff ahead of a journey back to Moscow for Kononenko and Houston for McClain and Saint-Jacques.

Arriving at 0247 GMT to warm conditions, Kononenko joked that he was "happy to see any kind of weather" after coming back from space.

The trio's launch on December 3 was the first after a Soyuz rocket carrying Russia's Aleksey Ovchinin and US astronaut Nick Hague failed in October just minutes after blast-off, forcing the pair to make an emergency landing.

They escaped unharmed but the failed launch was the first such incident in Russia's post-Soviet history and a new setback for the country's once proud space industry.

McClain, Kononenko and Saint-Jacques had been optimistic ahead of their successful launch and remained upbeat throughout their time aboard the orbital lab which is seen as a rare example of cooperation between Russia and the West.

"A beautiful night pass over Africa on my last night on @Space_Station," tweeted 40-year-old McClain, who completed two spacewalks during her virgin mission to the ISS.

Fellow first-time flyer Saint-Jacques broke the record for the longest single spaceflight by a Canadian astronaut, previously held by Robert Thirsk.

Thirsk clocked 187 days at the ISS in 2009 during a typical six-month mission, while 49-year-old Saint-Jacques' mission will stand at 204 days.

The record was helped along by the fact that the launch was moved forward to December 3 from December 20 for operational reasons - possibly as a confidence booster after the accident.

The returning trio were given a ceremonial send off Monday as they exited the ISS by Ovchinin, Hague and NASA astronaut Christina Koch, who arrived at the lab in March on a fresh mission. - AFP


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