By LYNN BERRY
MOSCOW (AP) - A Soyuz space capsule carrying an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts landed Saturday morning on the foggy steppes of Kazakhstan, safely returning the three men to Earth after a 144-day mission to the International Space Station.
NASA's Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin had been scheduled to return on Friday, but the landing was postponed by a day because of bad weather.
Live footage on NASA TV showed all three men smiling as they were helped out of the capsule and into reclining chairs to begin their acclimatization to Earth's gravity after nearly five months in space.
A NASA TV commentator said only 2 of 12 search and rescue helicopters were allowed to land at the touchdown site because of heavy clouds and fog. So instead of being placed in an inflatable medical tent for checks, the astronauts were taken fairly quickly to 1 of the helicopters. The temperature at the time was well below freezing.
The crew was then flown to Kostanai, the staging site in Kazakhstan, where they posed for more photographs. Ford put on a traditional felt Kazakh hat and draped a matching coat over his flight suit, while holding up a matryoshka nesting doll of himself - all souvenirs of the mission that began and ended in the Central Asian country.
The three men blasted off on Oct. 23 from the Baikonur cosmodrome, which Russia leases from Kazakhstan.
Vladimir Popovkin, the head of the Russian space agency, described the crew as "giving off good vibes, that they are a united and friendly team," the Interfax news agency reported.
Space officials said Ford would be flown to Houston, Texas, while the Russians would return to the space training facility outside Moscow.
Their return voyage to Earth began with the Russian-made capsule undocking from the space station at 5:43 a.m. local time (1143gmt Friday) and beginning its slow drift away. The craft made a "flawless entry" back into the Earth's atmosphere, descended through heavy cloud cover and landed perfectly in an upright position at around 9:10 a.m. (0310gmt), the NASA commentator said.
Three other astronauts - from Russia, the U.S. and Canada - remain at the space station. The next three-man crew - two Russians and an American - is scheduled to launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome on March 29.