Hot tea and robes for returning astronauts

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The Independent Online

After six months circling the Earth on board the International Space Station, the British astronaut Michael Foale emerged from the Soyuz capsule yesterday feeling distinctly wobbly.

"I feel the nice smell of earth ... and you are the first people I see after six months away. It's nice to be here," he said in Russian to the waiting search and rescue team, who were on hand with hot tea and warm fleeces.

His bell-shaped module touched down perfectly in the steppes of Kazakhstan early yesterday morning after a three-and-a-half-hour descent - a "bull's-eye" landing, according to Nasa, which hailed the mission as a major advance in American-Russian space co-operation.

Nasa-trained Mr Foale, 47, had spent the previous six months on the station with the Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri. They returned to Earth with the European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers from Holland, who had joined them with a relief mission nine days earlier.

Amid delight at the successful touchdown, officials put on a red carpet reception for the three, dressing the astronauts in traditional Kazakh robes and hats and leading them by the arm to face the world's media.

It is more than a year since the US shuttle programme was grounded after Columbia broke up over Texas, killing seven astronauts. Russian craft are presently filling in for the US shuttles, and there was relief that this landing did not echo the wild descent of the first Soyuz capsule carrying an American last year. "It was heavier, or more violent, than I thought," said Mr Kuipers, groggily. "But, yes, it was a beautiful ride. It feels like after a good party."