Photograph by Phillip Toledano, National Geographic
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A sign on the road to a spaceship landing site in Kazakhstan, where the Russian (formerly Soviet) space agency has been welcoming cosmonauts back to Earth for decades.

Photograph by Phillip Toledano, National Geographic

See the Happy Chaos at Astronauts' Landing Site

A successful return to Earth for Scott Kelly, Mikhail Korniyenko, and Sergey Volkov.

I know it’s going to be a great adventure when I get the message from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, warning me about the hazards of being near a landing spacecraft. Some of the delights I might encounter: gamma ray radiation and being brained by a jettisoned spaceship antenna while I’m gawping slack-jawed skywards. 

I’m going to see the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft land on the steppes of Kazakhstan with Commander Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Korniyenko, who both spent 340 days onboard the International Space Station, along with cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, who was on the ISS since September. (See Scott Kelly’s own photos from space.) For a supreme space nerd like myself, it’s a dream come true. I would happily do this assignment for free, but of course I don’t mention this, because I’m not only a writer and photographer but also a hard-nosed businessman. 

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We departed at 4 a.m. for the landing site.

The journey should be simple enough. It starts with a flight to Moscow, connecting to another flight to Karaganda, Kazakhstan. Then a 300-mile (500-kilometer) drive across the steppes, culminating in a brisk 15-mile (25-kilometer) jaunt on a snowmobile to the final landing site. Because I have the navigational abilities of a mole, I'm guided by three splendid Russian gentlemen, who will ensure my semi-intact arrival at the landing site.

The initial drive goes without incident (unless you count listening to mid 1990's house music the entire way as an incident). The first day of travel ends rather abruptly in a two-whiskey-bottle dinner some 50 miles (80 kilometers) from our final destination. The weather has turned against us, and the plains, covered with snow two days ago, have turned to a swampy, shoe-sucking mud bog. A whiskey-shot punctuated discussion follows. Should we drive to the landing site? Or go by snowmobile? Frankly, the idea of a 4 a.m. snowmobile ride does not fill me with glee. I’m not sure I want to arrive feeling like a bag of frozen peas. 

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Our guide, Alexandr Yarosh, searches for the Soyuz landing site.

We decide to leave in the morning. I’m so excited that I can’t sleep at all (although really, how well does anyone sleep in a car with no heat and 14 degree Fahrenheit (-10 degree Celsius) temperatures? 

The final push starts off well, and we’re making good time. At around 5 a.m., a small monument emerges from the darkness. Someone has left fresh flowers. It’s a memorial to three cosmonauts who lost their lives in 1971. A faulty valve caused their Soyuz 11 spacecraft to depressurize, killing them during reentry. We pay our respects, and then disappear into the night.

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There was happy chaos at the landing site.

Of course, because things have been going pretty well, now they begin to go wrong.

The capsule is scheduled to come down at 10:20 a.m. Around 9, one of our cars gets stuck in the mud, and when I say stuck, I mean archaeologically stuck. We waste 20 minutes trying to dig our way out, and when that doesn’t work, it’s Plan B, which is the snowmobiles and one reserve truck. Suddenly it becomes a frantic race to get to the landing site in time. We’re trying to find the prime search team, which will be closest to the capsule when it comes down. Even though the steppes are flat and featureless for thousands of miles, the search team’s giant wheeled trucks are surprisingly hard to spot, and we have several false starts. First we find the telemetry trucks, then a secondary search team. 

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Astronaut Scott Kelly looks out at the plains after a year in space.

Finally, one of our snowmobiles spots the primary search team, and we reach them not a moment too soon. A sonic-boom crack rolls across the plains as parachutes are deployed. All eyes snap upward, searching for the tiny orb of the capsule, and … nothing. Minutes drag by, and then we hear the thud of choppers. We see them, tiny, in the distance. They have spotted the Soyuz, but it has overshot its landing point by about 10 miles (17 kilometers).

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Mikhail Korniyenko emerges from the spacecraft after spending 340 days with Scott Kelly on the International Space Station.

Jumping on the snowmobiles again, we close the distance agonizingly slowly. I see a half dozen helicopters landing nearby. I was desperately hoping to see the Soyuz space capsule drift down like a dandelion seed, but I arrive too late.

Even though I’ve missed the actual landing, it’s wildly romantic to be so close to an actual space capsule. It gives off a charred scent from the fire of re-entry. There’s a small crater nearby where the capsule’s retrorockets fired to slow its descent at the last minute. The Soyuz still feels like a living thing. It hasn’t yet been stuffed and mounted, consigned to a museum. 

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A discarded Soyuz heat shield.

What’s surprising is the mayhem.

We’d been told that the media would be kept in an area away from the capsule. Sure, the capsule is cordoned off, but the cordon is more of a suggestion. Photographers have mobbed the charred capsule, their cameras pressed up against the portholes, the flashes blinding the captive cosmonauts. There’s a forest of smart phones surrounding the Soyuz—this will be on everyone’s feed in a few hours. Once the cosmonauts have been pried out of the capsule, they sit for photos and questions. Kelly looks composed. Korniyenko seems delighted, and Volkov has a vaguely bemused expression on his face. I wonder if he's slightly startled by the concept of weather: It's chilly, and he's been in a climate-controlled tin can for 7 months.

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After the safe landing, people took selfies with the Soyuz, the cosmonauts, even the spacesuits. 

Interviews done, the cosmonauts are carried by ebullient Russian soldiers like newborn babies to the orange inflatable field hospital. Now the selfie orgy begins in earnest. Selfies with the empty spacesuits. Selfies In front of the capsule, selfies with the discarded parachute. Anything that is space-related is worth a selfie. And why not? It’s a spacecraft. From space. How often in your lifetime will you see that? (Read Phenomena writer Nadia Drake on why she wants to be an astronaut and see more photos of the astronauts’ triumphant return.) 

The cosmonauts depart, and so do we. It’s a long two-day journey back to civilization. (At one point we have 7 tire punctures in the convoy at the same time.) On our way back, we collect our disabled snowmobile, and with typical Russian ingenuity, someone has the idea to fashion a sled of sorts from the discarded Soyuz heat shield. A few strokes of the axe, and something that preserved the cosmonauts from certain death now serves another purpose. 

This was an experience of a lifetime. And like many experiences you spend a lifetime dreaming of, it’s different than the dream. There is a pleasing lack of reverence in the way the Russians do space. In some ways, a Soyuz landing is a family affair. There are few barriers between spectator and participant, and such obvious pride and joy at what’s been achieved. It’s chaos, but a joyful chaos. The dozens of soldiers present seemed to be less on a military mission and more on a school trip.  Was it worth traveling thousands of miles to watch something for a few hours? Oh yes. Would I do it again? In a second.

On the return trip, a truck gets stuck in the Kazakhstan mud.