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Lost in space, down to earth

Astana, May 4 (Reuters): A US-Russian crew stranded in space by the shuttle tragedy were found alive and well today after losing radio contact on re-entry and landing 500 km off target in the steppes of Kazakhstan.

The Americans Ken Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russia’s Nikolai Budarin already had to extend a three-month stay on International Space Station to almost six after the loss of the American space shuttle Columbia in February.

When they were finally brought back in a Russian Soyuz module they were out of contact and so far off target they had to wait over two hours to be located by rescuers scouring the Central Asian steppes in planes and helicopters. The crew landed in a remote spot north of the Aral Sea, almost 500 km short of their target — an unusually big miss.

“Everything is great!” Bowersox told a crowd of reporters in the Kazakh capital Astana before boarding a plane to Moscow. “(The crew) are doing great. Just a normal return to earth.”

It was not clear why the capsule missed its planned landing site in Kazakhstan, home of the former Soviet space programme.

“When we saw the signs on the displays, our eyes got very wide. We had expected a fully normal entry,” said expedition commander Bowersox, relaxing on the flight back to Moscow.

The three astronauts reached Astana aboard a Russian helicopter more than eight hours after landing at around the scheduled time of 0200 GMT, looking pale but cheerful.

The two Americans were the first US astronauts to return to earth on board a Russian craft — and the first to land the new modified Soyuz, fitted with a new entry control system and new engines. “It was fantastic. For me as a test pilot it was a really great experience,” Bowersox said. “It’s something I’ve always dreamed of.”

All three men were flown to Moscow. Officials said Pettit had injured his shoulder, but that the crew were otherwise healthy. Pettit was laid out on a stretcher in the helicopter and did not greet waiting officials at Astana.

“The most important thing in our work is a happy ending, so the crew can walk around the capsule after landing and pick tulips,” Yuri Koptev, head of Russia’s space agency, told reporters. “There is no need to dramatise the situation.”

Mission control usually bursts into applause when crews touch down safely. Early today it was silent as technicians struggled to understand what was happening while helicopters carrying doctors and officials combed the vast steppe. Experts said the capsule probably came down in a steeper, so-called ballistic descent, increasing the force of gravity and hampering the crew’s ability to control it. They said this may also have disrupted communications. “It makes the entry a lot shorter. So before we knew it we were on the ground,” Bowersox said.

NASA officials praised the work of the Russians, who were called on to bring the crew home after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its return to earth in February, killing seven astronauts on board and grounding the shuttle fleet.

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