American, two other astronauts come down safely

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ARKALYK, Kazakhstan (AP) – A capsule carrying Brazil’s first astronaut, along with a Russian and an American, landed safely in the freezing Kazakh steppe early Sunday after separating from the international space station and hurtling through the Earth’s atmosphere.

American astronaut Bill McArthur, Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and Brazilian Marcos Pontes touched down on target and on schedule.

The TMA-7 landed on its bottom about 30 miles northeast of Arkalyk after what Mission Control officials called a flawless flight. Officials at Russia’s Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, reported that the capsule had been in radio contact for much of the bone-jarring, 3½-hour journey and that all three crew members were feeling well.

Ground crews reached the capsule in northern Kazakhstan, where temperatures hovered around 13 degrees below zero, within minutes of the landing. McArthur, shown on a Mission Control screen as he was still strapped inside the capsule, looked dazed after the 250-mile trip from the space station.

Pontes, seated in a chair outside the capsule, grinned and gave a thumbs-up as his bulky spacesuit was removed. He was handed a Brazilian flag and a Panama hat that was pulled out of the capsule – apparently one that he had carried to the space station in tribute to the Brazilian inventor and aviator Alberto Santos Dumont, to whom Pontes had dedicated his flight.

The three travelers were given hot tea and wrapped in blankets before being whisked into a medical tent.

McArthur and Tokarev had spent more than six months on the space station. They were replaced by Russian commander Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. flight engineer Jeff Williams, who arrived at the station together with Pontes on April 1. Pontes had traveled to the station for a weeklong stint.

Speaking at Russian Mission Control, the head of Brazil’s space program, Raimundo Mussi, said Ponte would receive “a big hug from all Brazilians” upon his return home.

The American space program has depended on the Russians for cargo and astronaut delivery since the February 2003 Columbia disaster grounded the shuttle fleet. The shuttle Discovery visited the station last July but problems with the external fuel tank’s foam insulation have cast doubt on when shuttles might return to flying.

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