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Jeff Williams waves
NASA astronaut Jeff Williams waves to the camera after coming out of the Soyuz capsule he rode down to Earth from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA TV)

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams returned to Earth from the International Space Station in the company of two Russian cosmonauts tonight, setting a U.S. spaceflight record in the process.

Today marked 534 days of cumulative time in space for Williams, which makes him the “most experienced U.S. astronaut in history,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said.

Now-retired astronaut Scott Kelly still holds the U.S. record for consecutive days in space (340 days), but Williams surpassed him in total time, thanks to his three long-term stays on the space station plus a shuttle flight in 2000.

Williams and his Russian crewmates, Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, touched down in the steppes of Kazakhstan just after sunrise (7:13 a.m. local time Wednesday, 6:13 p.m. PT Tuesday), nearly three and a half hours after leaving the station. NASA spokesman Dan Huot, who was reporting from the scene, said the trio’s Russian Soyuz capsule made a bull’s-eye landing.

Soyuz descending
A Soyuz capsule descends toward the steppes of Kazakhstan. (Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA)
Soyuz touchdown
With its parachute spread wide, the Soyuz makes its touchdown. (Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA)
Soyuz crew
NASA’s Jeff Williams and his Russian crewmates, Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, are surrounded by their recovery team after landing. (Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA)

The three were quickly taken out of the capsule by the Russian-led recovery team, and carried to a tent for an initial round of medical screenings. Williams will head back to Houston, while Ovchinin and Skripochka will fly back to Moscow.

Williams and the two Russians spent 172 days on the space station. Among the highlights of Williams’ tour of duty were two spacewalks that he conducted with NASA’s Kate Rubins over the past three weeks.

Rubins and the two other spacefliers who are remaining aboard the station, Russia’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Japan’s Takuya Onishi, bade farewell to the departing trio and took pictures as they left.

Williams enjoyed the view as the Soyuz backed away. “Station is looking beautiful!” he said.

Later, Rubins captured an amazing photo of the blazing plasma trail that the Soyuz capsule created as it streaked through Earth’s atmosphere. Trailing behind the Soyuz landing module’s bright point of light were the blazing remnants of other hardware that was jettisoned by the craft.

Soyuz descent
A photo taken by NASA astronaut Kate Rubins shows the Soyuz craft’s fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere, followed by a blazing trail of debris. (Credit: Kate Rubins via NASA TV)
Soyuz seen from station
An image captured from the International Space Station shows the departing Soyuz. (Credit: NASA)

A fresh trio of spacefliers – NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Russia’s Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov – will be launched to the station from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 23.

Yet another crew rotation is planned in November. That’s when NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will begin her third long-duration mission on the station.

Whitson is expected to break Williams’ U.S. record for cumulative time in space, but she has a long way to go to match the world record: Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka has chalked up 879 days in space, the equivalent of nearly two and a half years. A dozen other Russians have logged more time than Williams.

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