ABC News reported that American astronauts Joe Acaba and Mark Vande Hei, and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin returned to Earth on a Soyuz capsule shortly after sunrise on Wednesday, local Kazakhstan time, following a five-and-a-half-month mission aboard the International Space Station. They landed in the Central Asian country where they faced rain and temperatures below freezing. Flight controllers worried about how weather conditions could affect the recovery mission, but the weather ended up not being as severe as expected, and everything went as planned.
The three astronauts smiled, waved, and pumped their fists in the air as they emerged from the capsule and were carried in chairs. Medical staff wrapped them in blankets, took their pulse, and made sure they were okay.
Three other astronauts remain in the International Space Station. “We’re already missing you,” radioed station commander Anton Shkaplerov as the capsule backed away.
Acaba is the first astronaut of Puerto Rican heritage and a former teacher. He teamed up with another educator-astronaut, who’s launching in three weeks, to perform the science lessons Christa McAuliffe was planning to teach aboard the space shuttle. She was killed along with the rest of the crew when the Challenger exploded shortly after launch 32 years ago.
The ISS astronauts, who were aboard the orbiting lab since last September, helped replace the aging mechanical hands of the station’s big robot arm. A highlight of their mission was when they received a call from Pope Francis. The Pope and the astronauts shared how beautiful and fragile our planet is.
A replacement crew will lift off from Kazakhstan on March 21 and bring the space station back up to a full crew of six.
The International Space Station has been continuously occupied since November 2, 2000.
According to Space.com as of January 2018, 230 individuals from 18 countries have visited the International Space Station, mostly from the United States and Russia.
It is expected that the space station will continue to be in service through at least 2024, which could possibly be extended until 2028. There are no concrete plans for it after it ceases to operate. Speculation is that it could be deorbited or recycled to build newer space stations.
Critics of the International Space Station argue that the billions of dollars the United States spends on the orbiting lab could be better used to solve problems here on Earth; however, according to NASA, the experiments conducted in the ISS have contributed to significant advances in healthcare, such as improving eye surgery with space hardware, making inoperable tumors operable with a robotic arm, developing improved vaccines, breast cancer detection, and treatment technology. Advocates for the space station allege that these and other endeavors which improve the quality of life for humankind make the cost of keeping the orbiting lab operational worthwhile and that the answers for the most crucial problems on Earth may lie in space.