A US-Russian space crew landed safely yesterday in the steppes of Kazakhstan, greeted with extra precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Following a stint on the International Space Station, Nasa astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan and Russian Oleg Skripochka touched down as scheduled. Their Soyuz landing capsule landed under a striped orange-and-white parachute about 150km southeast of Dzhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan.
Russian officials said they took stringent measures to protect the crew amid the pandemic. The recovery team and medical personnel assigned to help the crew out of the capsule and for post-flight checks had been under close medical observation for nearly a month, including tests for the coronavirus.
The space crew smiled as they talked to medical experts wearing masks. Following a quick checkup, the crew was due to be flown by helicopters to Baikonur, from where Skripochka would be taken to Moscow, said Vyacheslav Rogozhnikov, a Russian medical official who oversaw the crew's return.
Morgan and Meir will have to be driven from Baikonur to Kyzyl-Orda, 300km away, to board a flight to the US — a strenuous journey made necessary by Kazakhstan's quarantine measures.
On Thursday, the Russian government coronavirus headquarters reported the first contagion at the Star City, which serves as the main hub for pre-flight training of US, Russian and other international crew members of the International Space Station. The Star City also has residential quarters for cosmonauts and support staff.
Roscosmos Director Dmitry Rogozin said on Wednesday the Russian space corporation had 30 coronavirus cases.
The crew returned to Earth exactly 50 years after the Apollo 13 astronauts splashed down in the Pacific after an oxygen tank explosion aborted the moon-landing mission.
Morgan wrapped up a 272-day mission on his first flight into space. He conducted seven space walks, four of which were to improve and extend the life of the station's Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which looks for evidence of dark matter in the universe.
Meir and Skripochka spent 205 days in space. Meir carried out the first three all-women spacewalks with her crewmate Christina Koch, who returned from space in February.
Speaking from the orbiting outpost before the return to Earth, the crew said coming back to the world drastically changed by the pandemic would be challenging. Morgan said the crew had tried to keep atop the coronavirus news, but added that it was hard to comprehend what was really going on.
"It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below," said Meir. "We can tell you that the Earth still looks just as stunning as always from up here, so it's difficult to believe all the changes that have taken place since both of us have been up here."
A new crew comprising Nasa's Chris Cassidy and Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner arrived at the station on April 9. They said before blastoff that they had been under a very strict quarantine for a month before the flight and were feeling good.