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Peggy Whitson
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is helped out of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft just minutes after she and two fellow spacefliers landed in a remote area Kazakhstan. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and two other spacefliers capped off a record-setting orbital mission today with their return from the International Space Station.

The trio, also including NASA’s Jack Fischer and Russia’s Fyodor Yurchikhin, landed in the steppes of Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, about four and a half hours after their undocking.

Fischer and Yurchikhin had been on the station since April, but Whitson was in space much longer – since last November, 288 days ago. That brought her cumulative time in space to 665 days, setting the record for NASA astronauts.

This mission also made Whitson the oldest woman to fly in space (age 57) and the most experienced woman spacewalker (with 10 orbital outings).

Retro firing
A Russian Soyuz craft fires retro rockets to ease the shock of touchdown. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Although Whitson holds the U.S. record for total time in space, seven Russians have put in more time – including Yurchikhin, who is now No. 7 on the list with 673 days under his belt.

In a pre-landing interview, Whitson said that she’s “not overly comfortable” with all the praise she’s been getting about breaking space records – but was glad to play her part in the space effort.

“I honestly do think that it is critical that we are continuously breaking records, because that represents us moving forward in exploration,” she said.

When she was lifted out of the Soyuz spaceship, she was greeted with a bouquet of flowers. “Welcome back, Peggy,” a member of the recovery team told her. After a round of medical tests and a stopover in Germany, Whitson will head back to her home in hurricane-hit Houston.

Whitson was originally scheduled to return from the space station in June, but extended her stay to take advantage of a later opening in Russia’s space schedule.

Among the earthly amenities she’s looking forward to are flush toilets. “Trust me, you don’t want to know the details,” she joked.

Three crew members remain on the space station: NASA’s Randy Bresnik, who is now the station’s commander, plus Italy’s Paolo Nespoli and Russia’s Sergey Ryazanskiy.

The next three spacefliers – NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba, and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin – are due for launch to the space station from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 12.

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