ALMATY (Kazakhstan) • Two Nasa astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut made a safe return from the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday to find a "different planet", one transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Americans Andrew Morgan, Jessica Meir and Russian Oleg Skripochka touched down in central Kazakhstan at 0516 GMT (1.16am yesterday, Singapore time) in the first returning mission since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in March.
Mr Morgan had been on the ISS since July last year, while Ms Meir and Mr Skripochka arrived in September.
Unusually, Nasa and Roscosmos did not show live footage of the trio parachuting down in their Soyuz landing capsule. This was scrapped "due to technical limitations associated with the epidemiological situation", Roscosmos said.
Subsequent footage from the landing site showed recovery crews wearing face masks and rubber gloves as they hauled the crew members out of the Soyuz MS-15 capsule, which was lying on its side.
"Please keep your distance," one ground crew member could be heard telling another.
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 changes to mission-end protocol.
The crew will not be flying back home via Kazakhstan's Karaganda airport as usual because it has been shut down, like so many other airports across the world.
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.
"Quite a ride home from @Space-Station today," Ms Meir tweeted late on Friday. "We've returned to a different planet, but it remains a spectacular one."