More than 65 vehicles searched for the crewThe capsule carrying
three astronauts stranded on the International Space Station by
the shuttle disaster, has been found safe after a nerve-wracking
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.
officials appeared to lose track of the craft - carrying two
Americans astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut - 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-hlaf hour journey.
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.
A radio signal sent out by the craft before it
lost contact was too weak for the search party to use it to the
location, but a rescue aeroplane finally spotted the capsule at
We are all very happy. It just took a little longer
than we anticipated
Applause broke out at mission control just outside
Moscow after the announcement.
"We are all very happy. It just took a little longer than
we anticipated," said Allard Beutel, a Nasa official there.
The astronauts had managed to open the hatch and get out of the
vessel an hour-and-a-half after the landing, officials said.
were sent to the site to pick up the crew. Cramped in the capsule
with the Americans was Russian Cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin.
The men - Expedition Six - had spent more than five months
on the International Space Station (ISS).
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
The Soyuz "taxi" had a perfect docking with the
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.
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
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.