Soyuz crew returns to Earth roiled by pandemic

Astronauts

ALMATY, Kazakhstan, April 17, 2020 (AFP) - Two NASA astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut made a safe return from the International Space Station to a planet roiled by the coronavirus pandemic on Friday.

Andrew Morgan, Jessica Meir and Oleg Skripochka touched down in central Kazakhstan at 0516 GMT in the first returning mission since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March.

"TOUCHDOWN! Welcome home, Oleg Skripochka, Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir!" Russia's Roscosmos space agency said in a tweet on Friday.

While the trio's landing site southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan is the same as for previous crews, the pandemic has forced a number of changes to mission-end protocol.

Roscosmos said Tuesday that the crews meeting the trio at the landing site were tested for COVID-19 and will don full-body protective wear.

The crew will also be avoiding the usual staging post of Karaganda airport -- shut down like so many other airports across the world -- for their respective journeys back to Russia and the United States.

Instead, Skripochka will fly from the Baikonur cosmodrome used to launch missions to the ISS while the NASA duo will take off in a plane from the steppe city of Kyzlorda after a drive of several hours.

In a media appearance aboard the ISS prior to her departure, Meir said it would be difficult to forego embraces with family and friends as she gets to grips with a new culture of physical distancing on Earth.

"I think I will feel more isolated on Earth than here," reflected Meir, who made history as one half of the first all-women spacewalk along with NASA colleague Christina Koch in October.

The International Space Station -- a rare example of cooperation between Russia and the West -- has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,000 miles per hour) since 1998.