Sep 11, 1:13 PM EDT

3 space station astronauts return to Earth


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3 space station astronauts return to Earth

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Three space station astronauts are back on Earth.

An American and two Russians landed early Thursday in Kazakhstan after 5 1/2 months aboard the International Space Station. They returned in a Russian Soyuz capsule that parachuted down through a clear sky. NASA reported that everything went well; the crewmen smiled and chatted as they were helped out of their spacecraft.

NASA astronaut Steven Swanson and Russian crewmen Oleg Artemiev and Alexander Skvortsov flew to the orbiting outpost in March. Their departure leaves three men still up there: an American, Russian and German.

"We had a lot of fun," Swanson said before heading home.

Noted German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who remained in orbit: "Elvis has left the building." He made the comment via Twitter, posting a photo of all six spacemen with the collars of their blue flight suits turned up, Elvis-style. Swanson posed with a ukulele before checking out.

Americans will be hitching rides to the space station via Russian vessels for at least another few years.

Sometime this month, NASA expects to announce which U.S. companies it will fund for this astronaut taxi service. The goal is to launch Americans from U.S. soil again by the end of 2017.

The Russian Space Agency will launch a fresh three-person crew on Sept. 25. That crew will include a Russian woman, a rarity in space travel. Elena Serova will become only the fourth Russian woman to fly in space and the first in nearly two decades.

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission-pages/station/main/index.html

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission-pages/station/main/index.html

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