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Serena Auñón-Chancellor
NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor is carried to a medical tent shortly after she, Germany’s Alexander Gerst and Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev landed in their Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft near the town of Zhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

A Russian Soyuz spaceship that stirred up an international fuss over a drill hole and an air leak brought three spacefliers back to Earth from the International Space Station without a problem.

NASA’s Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Germany’s Alexander Gerst and Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev touched down in the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan at 11:02 a.m. local time Dec. 20 (9:02 p.m. PT Dec. 19), leaving three crewmates on the orbital outpost.

The homeward-bound trio rode the same Soyuz they took up to the station in June. It’s the same Soyuz that experienced an air leak in August, causing consternation in space as well as back down on Earth.

Station crew members quickly traced the leak to a hole that was apparently drilled in a hidden corner of the Soyuz’s habitation module. The hole was plugged with a makeshift patch of epoxy sealant and gauze, leaving investigators at Russia’s Roscosmos space agency to figure out the cause of the breach.

For a time, there was dark talk about potential sabotage, but the current leading hypothesis is that the hole was accidentally drilled into the Soyuz’s hull during assembly, and plugged up to cover the flaw. The plug might have been jarred loose while it was attached to the station, setting off the leak.

The exterior side of the leak site was examined last week during a spacewalk that featured Russian cosmonauts carving away at layers of the Soyuz craft’s shielding and insulation.

Fortunately, the Soyuz crew rode down to Earth in the spacecraft’s sealed-off descent module. The carved-up habitation module was jettisoned along with the Soyuz’s propulsion module before atmospheric re-entry.

All three of the returning spacefliers seemed to be in good spirits as they were helped out of the Soyuz and carried over to easy chairs for their initial medical checks, in accordance with Russian tradition. Auñón-Chancellor grinned and flashed the thumbs-up sign as she was tended to by the recovery team.

The station is now in the care of Russian commander Oleg Kononenko, Canada’s David Saint-Jacques and NASA’s Anne McClain. Meanwhile, on Earth, Russian investigators will check photos and samples from the now-spent spacecraft and try to close the case of the sullied Soyuz.

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