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Space tourist and astronauts return to Earth

Two astronauts and a space tourist successfully returned to Earth this morning in their Soyuz capsule after spending time on the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who spent 178 days in orbit, Russian cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov, who was on the ISS for more than 200 days, and tourist Charles Simonyi touched down at 11:16 local time (3:16 a.m. EDT) in Kazakhstan, NASA said.

During their ISS stints, Fincke, the Expedition 18 commander, and flight engineer Lonchakov conducted experiments on the effects of long space journeys on the human body and putting out fires in microgravity.

Simonyi, a former Microsoft exec, plunked down $35 million for his two-week trip, his second to space. The total tab for his travels: $60 million. But as the Associated Press notes, he may be the last tourist that the Russians let travel to the ISS; next month, the station’s crew will double to six, making room scarce. The U.S. will rely on seats on the Soyuz to get to and from the space station as it replaces its own shuttle fleet – an upgrade that won’t be done until at least 2015.

This morning’s landing was much smoother than one last year, when a Soyuz descended steeper than usual and landed hundreds of miles from its target. "All technical systems of the ship worked excellently," Vitaly Lopota, chief of RKK energiya, which manufactured the Soyuz craft, told the AP. "Everything went perfectly according to plan."

Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov (left) and Commander Mike Fincke back on Earth today after landing in Kazakhstan/NASA TV

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