After 166 days in orbit, space station crew returns to Earth

Three members of Expedition 38 crew have touched down safely in Kazakhstan, after experiencing five and a half months of microgravity.

Bill Ingalls/NASA/Reuters
Former ISS commander Oleg Kotov (C) and flight engineers Sergey RyazanskIy (L) and Michael Hopkins from NASA sit in chairs outside the Soyuz TMA-10M capsule shortly after they landed in a remote area southeast of the town of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan, March 11, 2014.

After spending five-and-a-half months aboard the International Space Station, three members of Expedition 38 crew are finally back on Earth.

Despite the bad weather, the Soyuz capsule carrying Michael Hopkins of NASA, and Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) touched down southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, landed at about 11:24 p.m. EDT (9:24 a.m., March 11, in Dzhezkazgan), according to a press release from NASA. During their stay, the crew members made 2,656 orbits around the planet and traveled about 70.5 million miles.

For Hopkins and Ryazanskiy this was their first space mission, but for Kotov, who has spent a total of 526 days in space, this was his third trip into space.

In a discussion with space enthusiasts gathered for the annual South by Southwest technology conference on March 8 in Austin, Texas, Dr. Hopkins had said that the biggest challenge personally for him was getting used to "floating and what it is like to be in microgravity all the time.

During the duration of the expedition scientists participated in a variety of experiments, such as, growth of plant seedlings and movement of liquid, all under microgravity. One of the key focus areas of the expedition was to look at the management of human health for long duration space travel.

Visual Impairment/Intracranial Pressure or VIIP syndrome is one of the major risks associated with spaceflight. It’s similar to what one would experience by standing on the head when pressure is felt around the head and skull areas. "Astronauts in microgravity experience something similar. Without gravity pulling body fluids down toward their legs and feet, the fluids move toward the upper body. Scientists believe this causes fluid congestion in the head and increased pressure in the brain, known as intracranial pressure, which may be causing vision impairment in some crew members," notes NASA.

The Russian cosmonauts also carried the (unlit) Olympic torch during a spacewalk. The torch was returned to Earth and used to light the Olympic flame at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. They also installed a pair of cameras to provide views of the Earth from the ISS.

Hopkins along with fellow astronaut Rick Mastracchio successfully replaced a faulty ammonia pump that is part of the station's equipment cooling system.

In January, Orbital Science's robotic Cygnus spacecraft delivered food, clothing, and other supplies to the space station.

Expedition 39, currently under the command of Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, is now underway. Dr. Wakata along with flight engineers Mastracchio and Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos will look after the station until the arrival of the next  three new crew members in another two weeks.

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