The International Space Station’s all-ham Expedition 6 crew of Commander Ken Bowersox, KD5JBP; Flight Engineer Nikolai Budarin, RV3FB, and NASA ISS Science Officer Don Pettit, KD5MDT, is back on Earth. After spending more than five months aboard the ISS, Bowersox and Pettit became the first NASA astronauts to travel home from the ISS on a Russian Soyuz TMA-1 vehicle and the first to land in a foreign country. But their return trip was not without incident.

After undocking from the ISS May 3 at 2243 UTC, Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin touched down May 4 at 0207 UTC in Kazakhstan–some 285 miles shy of their intended target. The unexpected turn of events led to some tense moments in the Russian mission control center, where space officials of both countries were carefully–and anxiously–monitoring the crew’s return.

The Soyuz was pulled onto its side in the hard landing, and its antennas were damaged in the impact. Search aircraft eventually picked up the Soyuz’ emergency beacon and were able to locate the spacecraft and its crew some 2-1/2 hours after touchdown. It was another two hours before recovery helicopters arrived to pick up the crew from the remote Kazakh steppes. All three were in good health, but NASA sent in two flight surgeons and medical supplies to the Central Asia landing site just in case.

At week’s end, it remained unclear why the advanced-model Soyuz TMA–the first of its generation to land on Earth–undershot its intended landing zone. News accounts indicate the vehicle inexplicably took a steeper and faster “ballistic” re-entry trajectory instead of a more-controlled landing approach. Russian space officials have promised an investigation. The Soyuz will handle all crew transport to and from the ISS while the US shuttle fleet remains grounded following the Columbia disaster February 1. The grounding of the shuttle fleet forced Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin to spend another two months in space while US and Russian space officials worked out crew-exchange arrangements.

After a stop at Baikonur Cosmodrome, the crew headed for Star City, Russia, and the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. There, they were reunited with their families and began physical rehabilitation after months of living in a weightless environment. They’ll also undergo a debriefing. Bowersox and Pettit are slated to return to Houston in mid-May.

Expedition 7 Commander Yuri Malenchenko, RK3DUP, and NASA ISS Science Officer Ed Lu, KC5WKJ, arrived on the ISS April 28 aboard a Soyuz TMA-2 spacecraft for a six-month duty tour. They’ll return to Earth in early November. Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) school group contacts will remain on hold for the next few weeks as the new crew settles in.