ORLANDO, Fla., April 17 (UPI) -- Two astronauts and a cosmonaut landed in Kazakhstan at 1:16 a.m. EDT Friday, completing their mission aboard the International Space Station.
The space travelers returned to an earthly world changed by the coronavirus pandemic since they left months ago. Ground crews tended to them wearing surgical masks and respirators.
NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan concluded nine months living and working on the ISS, while astronaut Jessica Meir and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka spent almost seven months in space.
After post-landing medical checks, the crew returned by Russian helicopters to the recovery staging city in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Morgan and Meir were scheduled to board a NASA plane in the adjacent city of Kyzlorda, Kazakhstan, for a flight back to Houston.
"It's a little bit difficult to believe that we are truly going back to a different planet," Meir said via live broadcast from the ISS on April 10. She said watching from space as billions of people on Earth dealt with the pandemic was "surreal."
Morgan's 272-day mission began on July 20, 2019. His flight spanned 4,352 Earth orbits and a journey of 115.3 million miles. He conducted seven spacewalks, totaling 45 hours and 48 minutes, four of which were to improve and extend the life of the station's Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer as it looks for evidence of dark matter in the universe.
Meir and Skripochka, who launched on Sept. 25, 2019, spent 205 days in space, or 3,280 orbits of Earth and a trip of 86.9 million miles. During her first spaceflight, Meir conducted the first three all-woman spacewalks with crewmate Christina Koch of NASA, totaling 21 hours and 44 minutes. Skripochka is completing his third spaceflight for a cumulative 536 days in orbit.
Remaining aboard the station is the three-person crew of Expedition 63 with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy serving as station commander and Roscosmos' Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner serving as flight engineers.