NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore and Roscosmos cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova have safely touched down in Kazakhstan on Mar. 11, with the landing heralding the end of a 167-day mission to the International Space Station. During their time in low-Earth orbit, the crew's activities were planned to the minute by mission controllers on the ground. Over the course of Expedition 42, hundreds of experiments were undertaken relating to the effects of the microgravity environment aboard the station, the potential benefits of which will aid future astronauts, as well as the people back on Earth.
Astronauts Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts undertook three spacewalks designed to reconfigure the space station, laying hundreds of feet of communication and power cables in order to lay the groundwork for the fitting of a new format of docking port. The International Docking Adaptor will allow the next generation of American commercial crew and cargo resupply vessels to dock with the ISS.
Commander Wilmore handed over control of the station to Virts on Wednesday in a low-key but emotional ceremony, after which the three crew members boarded their return Soyuz TMA-14M, sealed the hatch, and finally departed from the station at 6:44 pm EDT.
In keeping with a tradition started by astronauts Brent W. Jett, Jr. and William M. Shepherd on Expedition 1, Terry Virts rang a ceremonial bell attached to the harmony node of the ISS to denote the departure of a spacecraft, in an echo of a more terrestrial Naval tradition.
An expected communications blackout with the capsule occurred soon after the Soyuz executed its final de-orbit burn, however the link was re-established prior to landing by a Russian Antonov-26, allocated to act as an airborne command and communication center.
The spacecraft and its crew finally came to rest at 10:07 pm EDT in thick fog, having descended under a fully-deployed main parachute, with the Soyuz firing its soft landing engines mere moments before touchdown. The crew were swiftly attended by search and rescue personnel deployed in 10 MI8 transport helicopters.
The remaining three ISS crew members will continue to hold down the fort until they are reinforced by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka. They're scheduled to launch on March 27.