Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams has taken over the command of the International Space Station, becoming the second woman in history to do so, even as a three-member crew of the Expedition 32 returned safely to earth, wrapping up a mission lasting more than four months.

The three-man crew onboard a Russian-made Soyuz capsule touched down successfully in central Kazakhstan steppe this morning after spending 123 days at the Space Station.

Just after the Soyuz spacecraft separated from the space station yesterday, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams took over command of Expedition 33 at the station from Commander Gennady Padalka, becoming the second woman in history to do so.

“I would like to thank our (Expedition) 32 crew mates here who have taught us how to live and work in space, and of course to have a lot of fun up in space,” Ms Williams said during a change of command ceremony.

Flight Engineer Joe Acaba of NASA, Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineer Sergei Revin of the Russian Federal Space Agency, landed north of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan this morning.

They arrived at the station on May 17 and spent 125 days in space, 123 of which were aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The trio are expected to have a difficult time readjusting to life on earth, especially Mr Revin and Mr Acaba, who are coming off their first long-term stay aboard the orbiting international space lab, NASA sources said.

“The goal is to get their strength and all their function back to their pre-flight baseline,” said NASA flight medical officer Steve Gilmore of the rehabilitation programmes the three will undergo. “In 45 days, with folks working hard, typically we get people to where they were before they launched.”

Mr Acaba, Mr Padalka and Mr Revin orbited earth 2,000 times and travelled 52,906,428 miles.

Mr Padalka now ranks fourth for the most days spent in space, a total of 711 days during four flights.

IANS adds...

Sunita Williams added yet another feather in her cap as she already holds three records for women space travellers, including a new record for spacewalk time by a woman astronaut.

On September 6, Ms. Williams set the record for total cumulative spacewalk time by a woman astronaut with her sixth space walk to repair a faulty power distribution unit using a toothbrush and a wire brush fashioned out of a spare cableThe spacewalk lasted 6 hours 28 minutes. Ms. Williams has now worked outside the station for a total of 44 hours and 2 minutes