Chris Hadfield, whose tweets and pictures from space captured the imagination of an entire planet, has landed safely on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
Canadian astronaut Hadfield, American Thomas Marshburn and Russian Roman Romanenko, returning from a five-month mission to the International Space Station, landed in their Soyuz capsule as planned southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan yesterday afternoon.
The Soyuz TMA-07M slowly descended by parachute under clear skies as Russian search-and-rescue helicopters hovered over the landing site for a quick recovery effort.
Rescue teams moved quickly to help the crew in their bulky spacesuits get out through the narrow exit hatch of the capsule. They were then put into reclining chairs to start adjusting to Earth's gravity after 146 days in space.
The three astronauts smiled as they chatted with space agency officials and doctors who were checking their condition.
Hadfield, who served as the space station's commander, gave a thumbs-up sign. They then made quick phone calls to family members and friends.
Nasa spokesman Josh Byerly said by telephone from the landing site that the three returning astronauts were doing very well.
A three-man US-Russian crew is staying on the space station and will be joined in two weeks by the next trio of astronauts.
Hadfield, 53, an engineer and former test pilot from Milton, Ontario, was Canada's first professional astronaut to live aboard the space station and became the first Canadian in charge of a spacecraft. He relinquished command of the space station yesterday.
"It's just been an extremely fulfilling and amazing experience end to end," Hadfield told Mission Control yesterday. "From this Canadian to all the rest of them, I offer an enormous debt of thanks."
He was referring to all those in the Canadian Space Agency who helped make his flight possible.
Hadfield bowed out of orbit by posting a music video on YouTube - his own custom version of David Bowie's Space Oddity. It's believed to be the first music video made in space, according to Nasa.
"With deference to the genius of David Bowie, here's Space Oddity, recorded on Station. A last glimpse of the World," Hadfield said via Twitter.
Hadfield sang often in orbit, using a guitar already aboard the complex, and even took part in a live, Canadian coast-to-coast concert in February that included the Barenaked Ladies' Ed Robertson and a youth choir.
The five-minute video drew a salute from Bowie's official Facebook page: "It's possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created."
Bowie, who released the original in the summer of Neil Armstrong's giant leap, was also among thousands to tweet it. "Hallo Spaceboy," he wrote, recalling a song from his album, Outside.
Hadfield had already sought Bowie's permission to use the song.
"We've been working on it for about six months," the astronaut's son and media manager, Evan Hadfield, said. "It was planned before the mission began and fleshed out as we realised what was possible."
It gained a million views in 12 hours on YouTube.
It was a musical climax to a mission in which Hadfield has attracted a global audience. His poetic tweets, photos and videos have changed the way many think about space, 44 years after he was inspired to go there as a 9-year-old watching the Moon landings at his parents' Ontario farm.
"It's wonderful," Professor Brian Cox, the physicist and presenter, said. "We've become used to seeing serious business in space but for the first time someone is allowing us to see day-to-day life."
In earlier clips, which Commander Hadfield filmed, the astronaut revealed the wonder of weightlessness by showing how a person sleeps, eats and even cries in space. A 30-second close-up of mixed nuts floating in their tub gained five million views alone.
"It might seem trivial, but you misunderstand our place in the universe to think we can sit on Earth indefinitely," Cox said.
"It has to be the case that we as a species will live and work in space rather than just explore it. Hadfield has shown us how."
Cox, a former keyboard player with the band D:Ream, added: "He's also got a brilliant voice."
Hadfield sings in several bands and enlisted his friend, Emm Gryner, to play piano over his vocals. Gryner, a former Bowie band member, then worked with her fellow Canadians, Joe Corcoran, a producer, and filmmaker Andrew Tidby to finish the film.
The astronaut arrived in orbit in late December. The Canadian Space Agency always planned to exploit his charm to create good PR, but did not predict such a hit.
Evan, 28, said: "I don't think an astronaut has had this level of media success since the Moon landings."
144 days on the International Space Station
100 million km travelled
2336 orbits around the planet
- additional reporting, Independent