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PHOTOS: Astronauts Touch Down After 115 Days In Space

Three space travelers landed safely back on Earth late Saturday night.

The journey began in the evening, 5:12 p.m., ET to be exact, when the hatch to the International Space Station closed, and Kate Rubins, Anatoly Ivanishin and Takuya Onishi climbed into the cramped Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft that would bring them home.

About three hours later, they separated from the space station as it flew over Mongolia. Inside, Ivanishin was at the controls as the ship's commander.

About 230 miles below, as Americans went about their Saturday nights, rescue crews fanned out in helicopters around the target landing site in central Kazakhstan. Around 11 p.m., ET, when the space travelers were scheduled to re-entered Earth's atmosphere, rescuers began to scan the sky for the falling spacecraft.

A NASA video showed the Soyuz spacecraft drifting to Earth under an orange and white parachute before touching down on a sparse plain spotted with snow. It had been about 3 1/2 hours since they detached from the International Space Station.

A few minutes later, rescuers set up a platform with a slide from the hatch of the Soyuz down to the ground. One by one, they pulled the crew members out, beginning with Ivanishin, who had been commanding the craft as it returned to Earth, and ending with Rubins, who grinned at she emerged into the near-freezing air.

All three will be confined to wheelchairs while their bodies readjust to gravity.

"You look great!" someone yelled to Rubins as she was carried away from the spacecraft.

"Hey!" was all she managed in reply, as multiple people lifted her into a chair and covered her in blankets.

The mission, referred to by NASA as Expedition 49 because they are the 49th long-duration crew to work from the International Space Station, was a collaboration between NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Since Rubins, Ivanishin and Onishi arrived at the International Space Station on July 9, they have conducted physics and biology experiments, upgraded parts of the station and handled the arrival of three resupply ships.

NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reported for NPR's Newscast unit that Rubins and her crewmates sequenced DNA and watched cultured heart cells beat for the first time in space. They also tested the effects of microgravity on their own hearts and eyes.

Rubins, a flight engineer for the mission, said the goal of their research was, in part, to prepare for humans to live in space for longer time periods. "There's a whole lot more left to learn," she said. "I'm surprised by the physiology every day."

Rubins also went on her first space walk during the mission.

"It was more awesome, amazing and terrifying than you can possibly imagine," she said of the spacewalk to install equipment on the outside of the International Space Station so private companies can dock and resupply personnel-carrying spacecraft in the future.

Rubins said one of the things she missed most about Earth was the feeling of wind, rain and sun on her skin.

Now that she's back on Earth, Rubins and her fellow crew members will go to the city of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, before splitting up. Rubins and Onishi will fly to Houston, and Ivanishin will return to Star City, Russia.

Three new astronauts arrived at the space station on Oct. 21 for a three-week mission. NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko have already begun one of their first experiments aboard the space station — growing a fresh crop of romaine lettuce in microgravity.

On Oct. 28, Ivanishin handed over control of the station to the new commander, Kimbrough. "I'm kind of reluctant to close the hatch because being on the space station is a very unique experience," Ivanishin said in a Twitter video of the change-of-command ceremony.

"Being in the space station, you live in a very friendly way. A very good environment of people who are working together. We came from different nations, we speak different languages, but being in space station we feel like one crew," he continued.

"I understand as soon as we are back on our planet, we will know what's going on there," the Russian cosmonaut said. "None of the things that are going on there are very good. ... That's why we'll be missing the space station."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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