ARKALYK, Kazakhstan – The seven-day space sojourn of an American millionaire scientist came to a close as he and a Russian-American crew undocked from the international space station and sped back to Earth, landing early Tuesday on the windswept steppes of Kazakhstan (search).
The bone-jarring descent brought an end to Gregory Olsen's (search) space station visit, the third trip by a private citizen to the orbiting laboratory. The Soyuz spacecraft (search) that carried them covered the approximately 250 miles from the station to Earth in 31/2 hours.
Olsen, American astronaut William McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev blasted off from the Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan on Oct. 1 and docked with the space station two days later.
McArthur and Tokarev will stay aboard the station for six months, while Olsen returns with John Phillips and Sergei Krikalev, who were there since April.
Ground officials established radio and visual contact with the craft about 5 minutes before the scheduled landing around dawn Tuesday on the broad, empty steppes of Kazakhstan, where Russia's manned-space facilities are based. Four search planes and 17 helicopters scrambled to meet the spacecraft.
John Phillips' wife, monitoring the landing at Russian Mission Control at Korolyov outside Moscow, said her husband was launched to space on his birthday and was returning on hers.
"I guess it's the best present a person could ask for," she said.
After landing, the crewmen were to spend two hours undergoing medical checks, then be shuttled by helicopter to a Kazakh staging point and ultimately back to Moscow for further examinations.
McArthur and Tokarev are to conduct two spacewalks during their time aboard, as well as an array of scientific experiments, medical tests and routine maintenance.
Olsen, who spent two years in training and paid $20 million for his trip, conducted experiments during his visit, including one to determine how microbes that have built up on the space station are affected by flight, particularly if their rate of mutation has been affected.
In addition, he took videos and photos and "enjoy(ed) being here, floating free in space," he told The Associated Press by e-mail last week.
The Soyuz spacecraft and Russia's unmanned Progress cargo ships have been the space station's lifeline since the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. The shuttle program was suspended for more than two years; the shuttle Discovery flew out in July, but problems with its insulation raised doubts about when the next shuttle would go into space.
Despite chronic funding problems, Russia's space program has maintained a reputation for reliability in recent years, although its image was tarnished in the past week with a pair of failed unmanned missions.
Russian media reported Monday that the botched launch of a costly, state-of-the-art European satellite and Russia's failure to recover an experimental space vehicle after its blastoff have jeopardized the program's hopes of earning foreign cash.
The loss of the CryoSat satellite because a Russian Rokot booster failed dealt a major blow to the European Space Agency, which had hoped to conduct a three-year mapping of polar sea ice and provide more reliable data for the study of global warming.
Russia's Khrunichev company, which built the booster, apologized for the loss of the estimated $210 million CryoSat.
"Moscow's space ambitions have sunk in the Arctic Ocean," the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented.