ALMATY, Kazakhstan - Three astronauts touched down in the dark, chilly expanses of central Kazakhstan onboard a Soyuz capsule Monday after a 125-day stay at the International Space Station.
NASA's Sunita Williams, Russian astronaut Yury Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide of Japan's JAXA space agency landed at 07:56 a.m. local time (0156 GMT) northeast of the town of Arkalyk.
Eight helicopters rushed search-and-recovery crew to assist the crew, whose capsule did not parachute onto the exact planned touchdown site due to a minimal delay in procedures.
Another three astronauts remain onboard the space station and are to be joined next month by NASA's Tom Marshburn, Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency, and Russia's Roman Romanenko.
The Soyuz remains the only means for international astronauts to reach the orbiting laboratory since the decommissioning of the U.S. shuttle fleet in 2011.
Williams, Malenchenko and Hoshide undocked from the space station Sunday at 1023 GMT to begin their return to earth.
Around 28 minutes before touchdown, the three modules of the Soyuz craft separated, leaving the 2.1-meter tall capsule to begin its entry into orbit.
A series of parachutes deployed to bring the capsule to gentle floating speed.
Winds pulled the descent module on its side in the snowy terrain, which is a common occurrence, but the crew was nonetheless swiftly hoisted out by the recovery crew and lifted onto reclining chairs and swaddled in blankets to shield them from the 12 Fahrenheit degree (-11 Celsius degree) temperature.
The chairs are designed to afford the astronauts comfortable acclimatization after months of living in gravity-free conditions.
"For me everything was very good," a smiling Williams told recovery staff, speaking in Russian.