LONDON/MOSCOW: AFTER 186 days in space, it was the rich, intoxicating smell of life on Earth that told Tim Peake he was home at last.
The British astronaut had spent six months in the sterile, antiseptic atmosphere of the International Space Station (ISS), floating high above our planet.
His mission had taken him on about 3,000 orbits of Earth, covering a distance of about 77.6?million miles (125?million kilometres).
So when he emerged from a Soyuz space capsule onto the sun-baked Katakh steppe at 10.15 British time yesterday (Saturday), the contrast was clearly remarkable.
"The smells of Earth are just so strong," he said. "It's just wonderful to be back in the fresh air."
Major Peake's capsule uncoupled from the ISS at a few minutes before 6am, for the start of a hair-raising 250-vertical-mile journey home.
Seated alongside him were veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and US astronaut Tim Kopra, the crew mates with whom he blasted off from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome on Dec 15 last year.
The three hurtled back into the Earth's atmosphere at nearly 18,000 miles an hour - or 23 times the speed of sound. With the capsule's heat shield reaching more than 1,000 degrees Celsius, the crew members were crushed back into their seats at forces of four to five times the Earth's gravity.
After passing through a super-heated cloud of plasma, the capsule's parachutes slowed the descent to a gentler three miles per hour.
In what was a smooth landing by Soyuz standards, the capsule touched down with a distinct "thud", created a large cloud of dust and fell on its side. Astronauts are taught to keep themselves tightly strapped in for this section of the trip home and to ensure their tongues are not between their teeth.
"It was incredible. The best ride I've ever been on," said Major Peake, shortly after being lifted out of the capsule by medical crews, along with his colleagues. "Truly amazing. A life-changing experience."
He admitted he would "miss the view", but said that at this point he was just looking forward to seeing his family again. And perhaps having a cold beer, he added.
"I'd like some cool rain right now; it's very hot in the suit. It's very hot in the capsule," he said.
Major Peake's cool demeanour belied the incredible physical stresses he had endured just moments earlier - and they will not end with his arrival back home.
Experts point out it takes two to three days for astronauts returning from six-month stints in orbit to start feeling well again.
Then it will be up to three months before the 44-year-old former Army test pilot's body recovers from the long-term effects of weightlessness, regaining eroded bone density and muscle tone.
Major Peake took part in experiments on the space station, but has previously said the most important goal of the mission was accomplished almost as soon as he was selected to fly.
"This is about the UK becoming involved in human space flight hopefully for the foreseeable future," he said earlier this month. "Not just for our community and our industry, but also for the kids and for outreach and to try and inspire people.
"Space is going to play an increasingly important part in our lives, and if the UK is not in the forefront of that, we are missing out, quite simply," he said.
Major Peake's comments reflect Britain's relatively late entry to space flight. The first Briton in space was Helen Sharman, who spent eight days on the Russian space station Mir on an expedition jointly funded by a private consortium and the Soviet government. Nasa astronauts with joint British citizenship have flown since, but Major Peake is the only Briton to have been sent into space by a British government via the European Space Agency.
His mission, called Principia after Isaac Newton's seminal work, included testing the use of nitric oxide gas to monitor lung inflammation.
During his long stint in space, Major Peake ran a marathon while strapped to a treadmill and held a science lesson for 300,000 schoolchildren.
Major Peake had also taken with him two tiny Raspberry Pi educational computers set up to measure the space station's environment, follow its journey through space and pick up the Earth's magnetic field, as well as to give schoolchildren the chance to have their computer code run in space.
After flying by Nasa Gulfstream jet to Norway, Major Peake will go on to Cologne, Germany, where the European Astronaut Centre is based, for medical tests and a spell of recuperation.
His parents, Nigel and Angela, were looking forward to being shortly reunited with their son.
"Job well done," said Mr Peake after watching the live transmission of the landing. "I'm so proud of him and what he's achieved."
Mrs Peake added that she was looking forward to giving her son a hug. "Yes, even astronauts need hugs," agreed her husband.