Astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to command the International Space Station, has safely returned to Earth after almost five months in orbit.

Hadfield, along with flight engineers American Tom Marshburn and Russian Roman Romanenko, returned aboard a Soyuz capsule. They landed under a large parachute in the flat steppes of Kazakhstan at 10:31 p.m. ET.

Hadfield, 53, was the third to emerge from the tight confines of the capsule, assisted by ground crew. Once seated in a reclining chair, Hadfield gave a wave and a thumbs-up. Shortly after, he was seen making a call on a satellite phone to family and friends.

NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said by telephone from the landing site that the three returning astronauts were doing very well.

It was Hadfield's first return from space in the Russian capsule — during his previous space missions, in 1995 and 2001, he travelled aboard one of the now retired space shuttles.

Earlier Monday, while he was reviewing Soyuz procedures on board the space station, Hadfield tweeted that he wanted "to thank every person at the Cdn Space Agency."

"Your work takes Canada into orbit. Be proud," he said.

The trio undocked from the space station shortly after 7 p.m. ET for their journey home. When they were about 12 kilometres from the station, the crew on the Soyuz capsule performed a successful de-orbit burn, slowing the craft down for its descent.

'Like a stone hitting water'

Bob McDonald, the host of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks, said the capsule and its crew go through a rapid deceleration as they hurtle back to Earth.

"When they hit the air, they're like a stone hitting water. They're travelling more than 20,000 kilometres an hour.…They have to get rid of all that speed, and they do that just with friction of the air and parachutes."

When the capsule was about 10.7 kilometres high, its parachutes deployed, NASA mission control said. About one second prior to touchdown, two sets of three small engines on the bottom of the Soyuz capsule fired to slow its rate of descent and soften the landing.

After the touchdown, ground crew helped Hadfield and his colleagues out of the Soyuz and put them in chairs so they can begin to re-adapt to gravity.

mi-hadfield-sunrise

Astronaut Chris Hadfield posted this photo to his Twitter account on Monday prior to his departure from the International Space Station. "Spaceflight finale: To some this may look like a sunset. But it's a new dawn," Hadfield wrote. (Chris Hadfield)

"[Hadfield's] head is going to feel like a cannonball, his arms are going to feel like logs," McDonald said. "Every time he turns his head the world is going to seem to turn sideways, he's going to get dizzy."

Former Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, who spent six months on the space station in 2009, described Hadfield's return to Earth as "a really dynamic event."

Thirsk, who watched the landing at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, said "the real icing on the cake is the landing."

"Sure it's bumpy, sure it's a little bit dynamic, sure you get tossed around," he told reporters. "But you can bet Chris and his two crewmates were laughing all the way down — they were having a good time."

A helicopter was to take the astronauts to Karaganda, Kazakhstan for medical checkups. Hadfield and Marshburn will then board a NASA flight back to Houston, arriving late Tuesday. Romanenko will board a Russian aircraft for a flight to Star City, Russia.

With their return to Earth, Hadfield and his colleagues will have spent 146 days in space on their mission. The Canadian Space Agency tweeted that they completed 2,336 orbits around the planet and clocked almost 62 million miles — or about 99.8 million kilometres.

"What a ride!" the CSA tweeted.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his congratulations on Hadfield's return.

"It is with immense pride today that Canada welcomes our very own space pioneer Chris Hadfield back to earth," Harper said in a statement. "Chris has done an absolutely remarkable job as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station."

New commander

On Sunday, Hadfield handed over command of the space station to Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov.

As part of his personal farewell to the space station, Hadfield released a video of his version of David Bowie's Space Oddity, which NASA said is the first music video made in space.

Since he went into space on Dec. 19, 2012, and took over command of the space station, Hadfield, with the assistance of his son, Evan, back on Earth, has been a big presence on social media through a host of tweets, photos, videos and interviews. The number of followers of the astronaut's Twitter account has jumped from approximately 20,000 when he went into space to more than 850,000 as of Monday.

The BBC's science editor called Hadfield "the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin," who had done more than anyone to raise the profile of the space station.

One Brazilian news organization dubbed him the "pop astronaut."

Meanwhile, Canada's most famous fictional astronaut, William Shatner, tweeted: "I have 2 words for him: 'SHOW OFF!' I'd even look good floating there singing!"

Former NASA astronaut Kent Rominger, who was Hadfield's commander on the 2001 flight of the shuttle Endeavour that took the Canadarm 2 to the space station, said the talk at a Mars mission summit he recently attended in Washington turned to the impact of Hadfield's prolific social media activity.

"Even there, … the discussion I got into was centred around [how] Chris Hadfield has singularly done more to expose space travel [and]

 the International Space Station than any other single individual," Rominger said.

More than 100 experiments

During Hadfield's time at the space station, he conducting more than 100 experiments, which included:

  • Studying the effect of the space environment on embryonic stem cells.
  • Seeing how special magnetic particles could damp vibrations.
  • Understanding the impact on humans of living without gravity.

Some of Hadfield's blood will eventually up end in a freezer at the University of Waterloo, where it will join a collection from eight astronauts and counting. Prof. Richard Hughson is studying the effects of space travel on blood pressure and blood vessels, and his prediction that arteries would tend to stiffen in space is turning out to be true.

"We don't believe this is going to be a lasting effect, but we don't know," Hughson said. "Unfortunately we're not really going to know until we have another experiment that is just about to start up where we will, in fact, follow them for a longer period of time."

Hughson's research is intended to better prepare humans for future space travel and better understand aging on Earth. 

With the return of Hadfield from space, Hughson and his team are packing up their lab and moving to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to meet Hadfield and start monitoring his return to gravity.

Hadfield's trip was, in a sense, the end of an era for the Canadian space program.

With Hadfield's return, it will now be at least three years before the next Canadian astronaut visits the space station.

Gilles Leclerc, the interim head of the Canadian Space Agency, has said there probably won't be another Canadian visit to the space station before 2016.

That trip would go to one of Canada's two new astronauts: Saint-Jacques or Jeremy Hansen.

The station will be kept in operation until at least 2020.

In the meantime, the future of the entire Canadian space program is on hold as the Harper government reviews the recommendations of a report on the space sector.

Former cabinet minister David Emerson, who headed the review, was blunt when he issued his report last November. He said the Canadian space program had "foundered" over the last decade.

Jim Quick, the president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, admits the space industry is going through a quiet period, but he is optimistic about the future.

"I think we've gone through a period of time where we could be doing more than we have been," he said in at interview at the Canadian Space Agency.

But Quick predicted that "some really good things are going to happen for the CSA and the space industry."

With files from The Canadian Press