Space shuttles Endeavour (L) and Atlantis switched locations at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and in the process came "nose-to-nose" for the last time in front of Orbiter Processing Facility 3 in this NASA handout image dated August 16, 2012. The space shuttle Endeavour, built to replace NASA's lost ship Challenger, prepared for a final flight on September 17, 2012, heading not into orbit but west to a Los Angeles museum. — Photo by Reuters

MOSCOW: A woman took command of the International Space Station for only the second time Monday as three US and Russian colleagues made a safe return from the orbiting space lab to the Kazakh steppe.

The Soyuz TMA-04M capsule touched down with US astronaut Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin aboard, after deploying a huge white parachute and making a pin-point descent with helicopters tracking its progress.

Nasa television footage showed the smiling men relaxing in lounge chairs and sipping warm drinks from thermoses while medical teams checked their pulses and chatted to them about their trip.

“It's good to be home,” a Nasa official quoted Acaba as saying the moment he was pulled out of the Russian capsule to mark the formal end of his 125-day stay in space.

The crew then set what may become a new tradition by signing their names on the Soyuz capsule in honour of their journey.

“I have not seen that before,” a Nasa television commentator observed.

The three leave behind another trio led by new commander Suni Williams, a US space veteran who has logged the most days in orbit by a woman as well as the greatest number of hours conducting space walks.

Williams is now in charge of a crew also comprised of Japan's Aki Hoshide and and the Russian Yury Malenchenko.

The trio had been set to be joined by a new expedition on October 17.

But Russian space officials said they may have to delay the next lift-off by about a week due to the necessary replacement of a piece of Soyuz TMA-06M on-board equipment.

“This will give us time to relax and conduct all the work properly and without any added pressure,” Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) chief Vladimir Popovkin said in televised remarks.

Russia's once-proud space programme has been beset by problems in the past two years that have seen unmanned vessels explode before reaching orbit and high-profile space exploration missions go awry.

The problems are a particular concern to Nasa as it undergoes a transition from the phased-out Shuttle programme and relies in the interim on Russia and its Soviet-era equipment for all manned links to space.

But Russia has an unblemished record with manned flight and is currently developing its own replacement for the reliable but increasingly outdated Soyuz system that could carry heavier payloads and more people up to the ISS.

The orbiter is now spinning about 350 kilometres  above Earth with Williams at the commands, only the second woman to take charge of the the orbiting research centre since its initial launch in 1998.

The US Naval Academy-trained pilot will celebrate her 47th birthday in space on Wednesday, having accomplished an honour first bestowed on fellow Nasa space pioneer Peggy Whitson in 2007.

Williams once worked as a diving officer and served in Iraq before working in Moscow in the 1990s with Roscosmos while helping prepare the very first ISS crew.

She blasted off into space for the first time in 2006 and is scheduled to return to Earth with her two current crew mates in January.

Updated Sep 17, 2012 07:12am

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