Cristoforetti returns to Earth after 199 days in space, setting a single-mission duration record for all European Space Agency astronauts. She's also the woman who has spent the longest time in space on a single mission, passing NASA astronaut Sunita Williams' record of 195 days.
Also on board the Soyuz are American Terry Virts and Russian Anton Shkaplerov, whose return to Earth marks the end of Expedition 43. The three astronauts touched down in Kazakhstan around 7:44 p.m. local time today.
The group hugged their fellow astronauts goodbye as they piled into the Soyuz and undocked early this morning ET.
While the roughly 249-mile free-fall back to Earth took about 45 minutes, the process for making sure they arrived at their destination was far more complex.
The Soyuz stayed close to the International Space Station for about two revolutions of the Earth as it fired its engines to align with the landing site. The crew members on board the spacecraft then turned their de-orbit engines in the direction of travel and fired them for four to five minutes before falling back to Earth.
"You have a lot of G-forces pushing you down. You're watching parts of your spaceship burn up outside of your window. It’s a little alarming visually," astronaut Doug Wheelock, who has ridden in the Soyuz, told ABC News. "And then, of course, the heat shield on the Soyuz is ablative. It melts off and chunks roll off as you're coming through the atmosphere so, consequently, [it] gets thinner and thinner."
The atmosphere helped slow the Soyuz down until parachutes opened and the spacecraft glided to a landing. The three astronauts were inside cramped quarters, bracing themselves for what Wheelock said has the potential to be a jolting return to Earth.
"They train you to keep your hands and arms inside of your body enclosure to make sure you don’t break anything," Wheelock said. "You get as small as you can. When you hit, some people stick the landing. We bounced. We hit again and rolled over. It depends on the winds and things like that."
The trio was set to return in May. However, their trip home was delayed after the failure of Russia's Progress 59 cargo spacecraft went into an uncontrolled spin shortly after launch.
The issue caused Russian space officials to ask the astronauts to stay in space for an extra month as they assessed what went wrong with the Progress launch.
The failure also pushed back the trip to space for their successors, who are now expected to arrive at the International Space Station in late July.