The Russian Soyuz capsule carrying the three out of six crew members returning from the International Space Station touched down safely on Friday at the central grasslands of Kazakhstan, but not without a drama.
Soyuz lost communication with the ground in between for several minutes, leaving the space officials worried. During that time, Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, made several calls to the Soyuz TMA-21 capsule but none of them were answered.
After the craft had de-orbited, the calls were returned. Finally, the communication was re-established between the crew and an Antonov fixed-winged aircraft circling the landing site. Otherwise, the landing took place without any trouble.
After being in the International Space Station for 164 days, NASA astronaut Ron Garan and Russian cosmonauts Andrei Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyayev reached the planet some 93 miles southeast of the city of Zhezkazgan at 10 a.m. local time.
Currently on board the Space Station are Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, NASA's Michael Fossum, and Satoshi Furukawa of Japan's space agency. They are scheduled to return to earth on Nov. 22.
Russia faces recent embarrassment when an ISS cargo craft crashed back to Earth last month on Aug. 24.
The accident made Russia postpone a part of its Soyuz program to November, while it conducted emergency checks. The rocket that failed in August is similar to the one that will be used in November by the Russians to carry astronauts. An American astronaut will also be on board.
The reason for the failure of the engine was later found to be a manufacturing defect in a fuel pipe that caused the third-stage engine to shut down. The finding obviously raised concerns pertaining to the quality control in the Russian rocket factories.
For NASA, the flight in July was the last one and it meant that NASA would move on to more ambitious destinations, whereas the job of ferrying people and supplies to the orbiting research station would be taken up by other companies.
Soyuz rockets and its different versions are used to carry cargo ships as well as crew members to space.
NASA has been worried about the idea of leaving the space station without any crew member for the first time in 10 years, if Russia fails to solve its problems by mid-November. Once the space station is empty, the station can be operated from the ground. But it could turn disastrous if a malfunction gets the $100 billion space station tumbling out of control. That could mean putting at risk the entire human spaceflight program of the United States, Russia and other participating nations.
The next manned Soyuz mission has been scheduled for Nov. 12 by Russian Agency, which is just a few days before the NASA's final deadline.
Russian space officials have said that they would launch two unmanned Soyuz rockets - one to launch satellites and the other to carry cargo to the space station - before sending up people again.