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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 May, 2003, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Space crew return off target
Donald Pettit, front, Kenneth Bowersox, rear right, and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin , rear left
More than 65 vehicles searched for the crew

The capsule carrying three astronauts who were delayed on the International Space Station (ISS) by the shuttle disaster has been found safe after a nerve-wracking desert search.

It took rescue teams a tense two hours to locate the Soyuz capsule, which returned to Earth at least 400 kilometres (250 miles) from the designated target site in Kazakhstan.

Investigations are focusing on why the craft made an uncontrolled (or ballistic) landing, rather than a manual or automatic touch down.

Russian officials appeared to lose track of the craft - carrying two Americans and a Russian - as communications with the module went down minutes before landing.

A search party of 15 planes and 50 cars scoured the deserts of Kazakhstan for the Soyuz module, which had touched down shortly after 0200GMT after a three-and-a-half hour journey.

It's a lot scarier than landing on an aircraft carrier
Ken Bowersox

Americans Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit were the first astronauts from US space agency Nasa to land in a foreign spacecraft.

It was the only way home for the Americans, as Nasa grounded its shuttles following the Columbia disaster in February in which seven astronauts died.

Bowersox shrugged off the landing, saying it had gone to plan.

"It's a lot scarier than landing on an aircraft carrier. It was great. Everything worked. Soyuz is very reliable," he told French news agency AFP.

Relief at mission control

A radio signal sent out by the craft before it lost contact was too weak for the search party to use it to find the touch-down location, but a rescue plane finally spotted the capsule at 0421 GMT.

Kenneth Bowersox (l) and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin
There was great relief when the crewmen were found

Applause broke out at mission control just outside Moscow after the announcement.

"There's no sense in over-dramatising the situation," the head of the Russian space agency, Yuri Koptev, was quoted as saying by the Russian Itar-Tass agency.

"The main thing in our work is a happy ending, so that the crew after landing strolled around the craft and picked tulips."

Helicopters were sent to the site to pick up the crew. After a brief medical check-up, the men were flown to Astana from where they were to head to the Star City astronaut Centre, near Moscow.

Cramped in the capsule with the Americans was Russian Cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin.

Mission extended

The men - Expedition Six to the International Space Station - had spent more than five months on the orbiting platform.

They had had almost two extra months added to their mission following the Columbia disaster, to allow their replacements enough time to arrive on board another Soyuz.

The space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 1 February.

Earlier this week, the departing three handed over to Russian Yuri Malenchenko and American Ed Lu - Expedition Seven - after their Soyuz craft docked with the ISS.

Malenchenko and Lu had to give the departing crew instructions on how to operate the Soyuz capsule.

Belongings stashed

Because the Soyuz is a more cramped vehicle than a space shuttle, the three men were able to bring very little back with them.

All of their other belongings from 161 days in space, including a didgeridoo that Pettit used to entertain his young twin sons during video conferences, have been left behind in bags. They will be collected by the next visiting space shuttle - whenever that might be.

Lu and Malenchenko have visited the ISS before - in 2000, before it was permanently occupied. They worked on the exterior of the platform together.

The Soyuz craft that took them there will remain in orbit as an "emergency lifeboat" should catastrophe ever strike the platform.

The men are scheduled to remain on board until October.

The BBC's Steve Rosenberg
"Search and rescue crews scoured the deserts of Kazakhstan"

Columbia was beyond help
02 May 03  |  Science/Nature
Russia may boost space station role
12 Apr 03  |  Science/Nature
Can Russia fulfil space role?
03 Feb 03  |  Europe
Astronauts venture outside station
09 Apr 03  |  Science/Nature
Russia suspends 'space tourism'
03 Feb 03  |  Europe


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