Space station crew return to a different Earth

Two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut will experience first-hand the effects of pandemic that has changed life for billions

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 08.16 UAE time in the first returning mission since the World Health Organisation 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.

The crew members were also welcomed back to Earth by Hazza Al Mansouri, the UAE's first astronaut.

Mr Al Mansouri, who completed a mission aboard the International Space Station last year, tweeted footage of his former crew mates touching down in the Soyuz MS-15 capsule and of their farewell aboard the space station.

While the trio's landing site south-east 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 on Tuesday that the crews meeting the trio at the landing site were tested for Covid-19 and would be wearing don full-body protective gear.

The crew will also avoid 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, Mr 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, Ms Meir said it would be difficult to forgo 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," she said.

The astronaut had spoken of how hard it was to comprehend the events going on at home.

"It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below," said Ms Meir.

"We can tell you that the Earth still looks just as stunning as always from up here, so it’s difficult to believe all the changes that have taken place since both of us have been up here."

She made history as one half of the first all-women spacewalk along with Nasa colleague Christina Koch in October.

Mr Morgan also spoke about his medical experience with the US Army.

"As an emergency physician, I know what it's like to be in a hospital or on the front lines of a field hospital," he said. "I'm very proud to be part of that profession, but at the same time, I feel guilt that I am as separated from it as I could be right now."

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

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