NEAR ZHEZKAZGAN, Kazakhstan - A Soyuz capsule carried an International Space Station crew of three back to Earth on Monday along with an Olympic torch that was displayed in open space as part of Russia's preparations for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.
Slowed by parachutes and braking rockets fired to soften the impact, the Soyuz TMA-09M hit the Kazakh steppe on schedule at 8:49 a.m. (0249 GMT) after a three-and-half-hour descent from the space station, live footage on Russian and NASA TV showed.
"The Olympic torch is home after a four-day journey," a NASA TV announcer said after what he called a flawless descent through a cloudless sky and a "bulls-eye touchdown" in the tall tawny brush of central Kazakhstan, near the remote town of Zhezkazgan.
Burly Russian personnel pulled cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin from the capsule, which lay on its side, carried him to a folding chair and covered him with a thick blue blanket against the minus 4 degrees Centigrade (25 Fahrenheit) cold.
The silver-and-grey torch, inspired by the Firebird of Russian folklore, was taken out of the Soyuz, unwrapped and handed to Yurchikhin, who beamed as he held it up for the cameras.
His countrymen Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky had taken the torch - unlit - on a spacewalk on Saturday, the first time an Olympic torch has been in open space. Torches have been brought on space missions before the 1996 and 2000 Games.
The torch they took into space is to be used to light the Olympic flame when the first Olympics held in Russia since the Soviet era begin in February in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
U.S. astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency were carried from the capsule and into chairs next to Yurchikhin before all three were taken to a heated medical tent - regular practice after a jarring descent.
"A split second before you touch the soft landing rockets go off ... and then you hit," NASA astronaut Michael Fossum said at the Baikonur launch facility, describing his own return to Earth aboard a Soyuz in 2011.
"It's solid. Most people will describe it like a car crash. It's like: 'Well, I think we are home.'"