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Soyuz spacecraft returns Russians and American

A Soyuz capsule carrying an American and two Russians touched down on target in Kazakhstan today after a descent from the international space station, safely delivering the first two men to follow their fathers into space.

The Soyuz TMA-12 capsule landed at 9:37 a.m. local time (0337GMT), about 55 miles north of Arkalyk in north-central Kazakhstan, Russian Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin told The Associated Press.

Search and recovery crews buzzed in on Mi-8 helicopters and extracted Richard Garriott, Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko from the capsule, which landed on its side on the brushy surface under a clear sky.

"What a great ride that was," said Garriott, an American computer game designer who paid some $30 million for a 10-day stay on the space station. Sitting in an armchair and wrapped in a blue blanket against the near-freezing temperature on the steppe, he smiled broadly.

"This is obviously a pinnacle experience," Garriott said in televised comments.

Garriott was greeted by his father, Owen Garriott, a retired NASA astronaut who flew on the U.S. space station Skylab in 1973.

"Hey, Papa-san," said Richard Garriott, 47. The pair shook hands.

"How come you look so fresh and ready to go?" Owen Garriott, 77, asked his son.

"Because I'm fresh and ready to go — again," he replied.

Not right away, though.

"I'm looking forward to some fresh food and to calling my loved ones," said Garriott, who lives in Austin, Texas, and was seen off by his girlfriend and brother, among others, when he rocketed up to the station on another Soyuz craft on Oct. 12.

"I've got my father here, but I've got other family back home I want to get a hold of."

Volkov sat next to Garriott. The son of a cosmonaut, he beat out Garriott as the first human being to follow a parent into space when he flew up to the space station six months ago. Kononenko, who also spent 199 days in space, was the last out of the capsule and could not be seen in the TV footage.

The head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, Anatoly Perminov, said on state-run Vesti-24 television that Kononenko had a tougher time than his crewmates during the descent but "feels good now." It was the first space mission for all three men.

The uneventful descent was a relief for space officials — and the crew — after technical problems caused unusually steep "ballistic descents" for the last two returning crews, putting them hundreds of kilometers (miles) off course and subjecting them to stronger gravitational force than in a usual.

On a Soyuz returning in May, the malfunction of an explosive bolt delayed the separation of the re-entry capsule from the rest of the ship. It forced the crew — including a U.S. astronaut and South Korea's first space traveler — to endure a rough ride as the gyrating capsule descended facing the wrong way.

It took nearly half an hour for search helicopters to locate the capsule, which landed some 20 minutes late and 420 kilometers (260 miles) off target, and determine the crew was unharmed.

Last October, a computer glitch sent Malaysia's first astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts on a steeper-than-normal path during their return to Earth.

Russian space officials said changes had been made to equipment and computer programming to prevent another ballistic descent, but they were clearly relieved at Friday's on-time, on-target landing.

The Soyuz TMA-12's module separated without a hitch before it entered the atmosphere, and a series of parachutes gradually slowed its speed from 230 meters (755 feet) per 5 second to about 1.5 meters (5 feet) per second.

"I can't recall a more ideal landing," Perminov said.

Garriott, who created the Ultima computer game series, spent time on the station conducting experiments — including some whose sponsors helped pay for a trip he said cost him a large chunk of his wealth. He also took pictures of the Earth's surface to measure changes since his father did the same 35 years ago.

Garriott took a Soyuz up to the 10-year-old station along with U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov, who will stay in orbit for six months. Also on board is U.S. astronaut Gregory Chamitoff.

The U.S. shuttle Endeavor is due to launch in November and carry equipment needed for raising the number of astronauts living at the orbiting outpost from three to six. That transition should occur in the first half of next year.

The head of the Russian state-controlled RKK Energiya company, which builds the Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo ships, said today that construction of ships for the next few missions was on schedule, but further plans could be jeopardized by a money crunch caused by the nation's financial crisis. Vitaly Lopota said the banks had been slow to provide loans to the company, and he urged the government to quickly earmark funds.