British astronaut Tim Peake has made a dramatic return to Earth after six months on the International Space Station (ISS), describing it as “the best ride I’ve been on ever”.
His space capsule parachuted down onto a remote patch of the vast Kazakhstan steppe to land on a cushion of fire from its retro rockets at 10.15am UK time.
A gust of wind rolled the tiny craft, measuring just over six feet across, on its side before the arrival of the recovery team, but all three crew members were said to be in good shape.
One by one they were lifted out of the capsule, charred by the heat of re-entry, and placed in comfortable chairs.
Major Peake, travelling with American Nasa astronaut Colonel Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, was the second to leave.
Looking exhausted at first, with his eyes closed, he then smiled broadly and gave a thumbs up to TV crews who had travelled to the landing site.
Asked how he felt, he said: “Great, thanks. It was incredible – the best ride I’ve been on ever.
“I’m just truly elated. The smells of the Earth are so strong. It’s just wonderful to feel the fresh air.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the family now.”
He added that spending 186 days on the space station was a “life changing experience”. In answer to another question, he said he would “maybe” treat himself to a “pizza and cold beer”.
The whole return journey went precisely according to plan, ending with a “bullseye landing” on the targeted spot almost 300 miles south-west of the major city of Karaganda.
In the last few minutes of the descent the Soyuz was filmed floating through banks of white cloud beneath its huge main parachute canopy, which covers 10,764 square feet.
Just one second before touchdown, six “soft landing” retro rockets beneath the capsule fired to reduce the impact speed to 3mph.
After exiting the craft the crew were taken into the care of medical experts to begin the lengthy process of readjusting to Earth gravity.
Next they were flown to Karaganda by helicopter for a traditional welcoming ceremony involving gifts of bread and salt and Kazakh hats.
The trio were then due to go their separate ways, Major Peake taking a plane to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, Colonel Kopra heading for Houston, Texas, and Mr Malenchenko travelling to Star City, near Moscow.
Some seven hours earlier the three men had scrambled from the ISS, orbiting 250 miles above the Earth, into the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft that carried them into space on December 15 last year.
Closing the hatch marked the end of ISS Expedition 47 and Major Peake’s Principia mission, which earned him an honour from the Queen for “extraordinary service beyond our planet”.
The journey home began after undocking and a four-minute 37-second rocket motor blast – the “deorbit burn” – that set the Soyuz on track for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Only the middle section of the spacecraft, the descent module, completed the trip back to Earth.
Soon after the deorbit burn, explosive bolts split the Soyuz into three parts. The spherical orbital module in which the crew members sat during their launch and the service module housing control systems and machinery were allowed to fall into the atmosphere and burn up.
As the descent module plunged towards the Earth, friction on its forward-facing heat shield slowed its speed from 17,398mph (28,000kph) to 514mph (827kph) and raise the temperature to a scorching 1,600C.
The rapid deceleration pushed the crew back into their shock-absorbing seats with a force of up to five gee – five times normal Earth gravity.
As planned, the return to Earth was controlled automatically by the craft’s on-board computer. In an emergency, the crew, led by commander Malenchenko, could have altered their trajectory manually using a hand controller.
Major Peake was the first British astronaut to be sent to the ISS by the European Space Agency (Esa).
The father-of-two took part in more than 250 experiments, performed a space walk and ran the London Marathon on a treadmill.
His mission was named Principia after Sir Isaac Newton’s landmark work describing the laws of motion and gravity.
Its primary purpose was to contribute to scientific knowledge by conducting experiments in zero gravity.
But the British astronaut did much more than that as he constantly kept in touch with the world by Twitter, took part in video-linked Q&A sessions, and engaged in educational activities that reached more than a million schoolchildren.
His success in putting Britain on the space-faring map earned him a unique place in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Becoming the first person to be honoured while in space, he was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for “extraordinary service beyond our planet”.
During his time in space Major Peake worked up to 14 hours a day, participating in more than 250 experiments devised by scientists from around the world.
He said the highlight of his mission was the space walk he conducted with Colonel Kopra in January to repair electrical components on the outside of the space station.
Major Peake was originally scheduled to return at the beginning of June, but his homecoming was delayed when the launch of the replacement crew was pushed back.