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Soyuz TMA-16M returns with Roscosmos’ most experienced veteran

Archive photo of Russian Soyuz spacecraft landing in Kazakhstan Photo Credit Bill Ingalls NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider - Copy

Archive image of Roscosmos Soyuz spacecraft touching down in Kazakhstan. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

The most experienced space-flyer and two his comrades have returned to Earth from the International Space Station in their Soyuz TMA-16M on Sept. 11, 2015 (Sept. 12 local time). With their safe touch down on the steppes of Kazakhstan, a roughly six-month chapter of the station’s history draws to a close.

Gennady Padalka landed with Andreas Mogensen and Aidyn Aimbetov just before dawn on the Kazakh Steppe. Padalka spent 168 days in space as part of Expeditions 43 and 44, while Mogenson, Denmark’s first astronaut, and Aimbetov, the first Kazakh to fly under Kazakhstan’s flag, are returning to Earth after spending 10 days in space.

“We are coming back to Earth, our hospitable planet,” Padalka said as he and his crew descended through the atmosphere.

Padalka, having finished his fifth flight, has spent a total of 879 days in space. That period is some two months longer than the previous record holder, Sergei Krikalev, had spent for the longest career-time orbiting Earth.

Soyuz spacecraft docked to International Space Station NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The trio departed the station in their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

Hatches between the station and the Soyuz officially closed at 1:17 p.m. CDT (6:17 p.m. GMT) shortly after a final farewell meal with the other six crew members on the orbiting lab.

Before entering the Soyuz, Padalka promised Scott Kelly, the station commander, and Mikhail Kornienko – both of whom are currently halfway through a year-long mission – that he would be present in Kazakhstan to watch them land in March of 2016.

Once inside the Soyuz, Padalka, Aimbetov, and Mogensen donned their Sokol launch and entry suits in preparation for undocking and re-entry.

Undocking with the aft port of the Zvezda module occurred at 4:29 p.m. CDT (9:29 p.m. GMT) when springs on both sides of the docking adaptor pushed the two spacecraft apart at about a tenth of a meter per second.

At that moment, the Expedition 44 mission officially ended – and Expedition 45 began.

About three minutes after undocking, the Soyuz fired its thrusters for eight seconds to increase its speed, pushing it to 12 kilometers away from the space station in preparation for the deorbit burn.

That deorbit burn, which lasted for four minutes and 29 seconds, occurred at 6:59 p.m. (11:59 p.m. GMT). About 25 minutes later, the orbital module and service module separated from Soyuz’s central descent module, which holds the crew.

During re-entry, Kelly tweeted a picture of the Soyuz during re-entry and welcomed them back to Earth.

“Get ready!” Padalka said moments before the main parachute deployed, slowing down the capsule from Mach 0.7 to just over seven meters per second.

Space shuttle Endeavour on orbit above Earth on its way to the International Space Station on STS-134 photo credit NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA has been dependent on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft since the close of the shuttle era in 2011. Photo Credit: NASA

“Just sit tight,” Padalka said, warning his fellow crew members about the landing. “Don’t hold your hands out.”

Soyuz landings have been jokingly compared to a car wreck. At 7:51 p.m. CDT (12:51 a.m. GMT), about three meters above the surface, retro-rockets fired to cushion the impact with the ground. The couches the cosmonauts and astronaut sat on were also primed to help cushion the crew.

After landing, the parachute pulled the capsule over onto its side before detaching, which sometimes happen during landings with stronger winds.

When search and rescue crews arrived, they carried Padalka out of the capsule first, since he occupied the center seat, followed shortly by Aimbetov and Mogensen.

They were all then carried to special reclining seats and given blankets to begin acclimating to Earth’s gravity. The trio were offered fresh fruit and water. Padalka opted for tea instead of water.

Nearby, an inflatable medical tent was erected to check the crew over before they were placed on Russian MI8 helicopters to depart the landing site on a 2.5 hour flight to Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city, for a welcoming ceremony.

After the ceremony, the crew will part ways and head to their respective space centers and reunite with their families.

Remaining on the station are Kelly, Kornienko, Sergey Volkov, Oleg Kononenko, Kjell Lindgren, and Kimiya Yui. Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui will return to Earth on Dec. 22, 2015, whereas Kelly, Kornienko, and Volkov will return in March 2016.,

Video courtesy of NASA


Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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