U.S. millionaire Gregory Olsen and a two-man, Russian-American crew returned from the international space station to Earth early Tuesday in a lightning-swift, bone-jarring descent.
The touchdown of the Russian Soyuz space capsule on the cold, wind-swept steppes of northern Kazakhstan, where Russia's manned-space facilities are based, ended the third trip by a private citizen to the orbiting laboratory. The Soyuz covered the approximately 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the station to Earth in just 3 1/2 hours.
Four search planes and 17 helicopters scrambled to meet the spacecraft, and search-and-rescue crew members helped the men out of the capsule, sat them in chairs and draped fur-lined sleeping bags over their shoulders to ward off the early dawn chill. Rescuers reported that the crew's condition was "good," according to Russian Mission Control at Korolyov outside Moscow.
Olsen, 60, appeared unaffected by the gut-wrenching trip home. He grinned ebulliently, ate a green pear and drank water with gusto as he chatted with ground personnel. He said he couldn't wait to walk around, eat "real food" and take a shower, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Phillips' wife Laura, watching the landing at Russian Mission Control, said her husband was launched into space on his birthday and was returning on hers.
"I guess it's the best present a person could ask for," she said.
Olsen traveled to the ISS with American astronaut William McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev earlier this month. McArthur and Tokarev are to stay aboard for a six-month mission, while Olsen returned with Phillips and Russian Sergei Krikalev, who had been on the ISS since April. During the mission, Krikalev passed the mark of 800 cumulative days in space _ breaking the previous record of 748 days set in the late 1990s by cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev over three missions.
Krikalev spent two long stints aboard Russia's Mir station, and flew twice on NASA's space shuttles. He was also part of the international space station's first crew nearly five years ago.
After landing, the crewmen underwent medical checks. They were to be shuttled by helicopter to a Kazakh staging point and on to Moscow later Tuesday for further examinations.
Olsen made his fortune with Sensors Unlimited Inc. of Princeton, New Jersey, a company that makes devices for fiber-optic communications and infrared imaging. He is chairman of the board of directors and a co-founder.
He spent two years in training and paid US$20 million (Ђ16 million) for his ISS trip. While aloft, he conducted experiments, including one to determine how microbes that have built up on the space station are affected by flight, particularly if their rate of mutation has been impacted.
In addition, he took videos and photos and "enjoy(ed) being here, floating free in space," he told The Associated Press by e-mail last week.
A Russian Space Agency official said that Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto was in line to be the world's fourth space tourist, following Olsen, fellow American Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth. Alexei Krasnov, the head of manned programs, said in an interview posted on the agency's Web site that the Japanese could face a challenge from another American, whom he did not name.
"Whoever is better prepared will fly," he said, adding that the next space tourist probably would not travel to the ISS until autumn 2006, reports the AP.