NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka safely returned to Earth last night, having spent six months on the International Space Station (ISS).
Their Soyuz TMA-20M vehicle landed safely in Kazakhstan, near a remote town called Dzhezkazgan, at 9.13pm EDT last night (2.13am BST this morning, 7.13am local time). As is the norm for Soyuz landings, the vehicle descended by parachute before thrusters fired just above the ground, giving the space-farers a soft landing.
All three spent 172 days aboard the ISS, with Williams now having spent 534 days in space across four missions, which makes him the American record holder for cumulative time in space.
That record will be broken next year, though, because fellow NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is launching to the ISS on November 16 and already has 376 days in space; this latest trip will bring her up to 560.
Williams now holds the record for the most experienced American astronaut – but not for long. NASA/Bill Ingalls
However, both pale in comparison to the overall record holder, Russian Gennady Padalka, who racked up 879 days in space across five missions. The longest single spaceflight belongs to Valeri Polyakov, who spent almost 438 days aboard the Mir space station in 1994 and 1995.
During their time on the ISS, Williams, Ovchinin, and Skripochka took part in hundreds of experiments across a range of areas. They were there as part of Expedition 47 and 48, with Williams serving as Commander on the latter.
The three also saw five cargo spacecraft arrive at the station during their stay. Two Russian Progress vehicles, two SpaceX Dragon vehicles, and an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft all brought useful supplies to the station.
From left to right: Williams, Ovchinin, and Skripochka. NASA/Bill Ingalls
Williams, together with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins who is still on the station, also performed an important spacewalk to install a docking adapter for upcoming private spacecraft from SpaceX and Boeing.
“We’re incredibly proud of what Jeff has accomplished off the Earth for the Earth,” Kirk Shireman, ISS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement.
All three will now go through rehabilitation on the ground to get them used to Earth’s gravity again. The next crew, Shane Kimbrough of NASA and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of Roscosmos, will launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome on September 23 to bring the ISS back up to its full complement of six people again.