Temperatures hovered near zero when the Soyuz capsule carrying former Illini Mike Hopkins landed in 6 inches of snow in central Kazakhstan. The frigid conditions didn't bother Hopkins, who was back on Earth for the first time in nearly six months.
Hear  Hopkins and his crewmates discuss their experience in space.
Watch  the search and recovery team unload the crew from the Soyuz capsule.
Temperatures hovered near zero when the Soyuz capsule carrying former Illini Mike Hopkins landed in 6 inches of snow in central Kazakhstan.
The frigid conditions didn't bother Hopkins, who was back on Earth for the first time in nearly six months.
"It felt good when the cold air came in and you got to smell the Earth again for the first time," he said Tuesday in a NASA interview. "It was just an incredible feeling."
Hopkins and two Russian cosmonauts who had arrived at the International Space Station on Sept. 25, Commander Oleg Kotov and Flight Engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy, returned at 10:24 p.m. CDT Monday after 166 days in space.
Hopkins confessed to some sadness as the Soyuz capsule pulled away from the space station on Monday afternoon.
"It's a little sad to leave what you have called home for 5.5 months," he said. "It was just an incredible place to get to spend that amount of time.
"At the same time, you're excited because you're getting to come home. It's been a while since I've seen the family, and I'm really looking forward to that."
NASA officials said Hopkins would have some time off before undergoing a debriefing and other testing.
He was being flown back to Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he would be reunited with his wife, two children and other family members.
Hopkins said the re-entry was "definitely an exciting ride."
"I would say when the main parachute opens up is probably the most exciting part.
"When they open the hatch, there's definitely this sense of a little bit of relief that you've gotten through it all, that you've made it back to Earth," he said.
In a NASA video of the landing, a smiling Hopkins emerged from the Soyuz capsule in the barren winter landscape of Kazakhstan.
He and his Russian colleagues were lifted out of the capsule by members of the Russian search-and-recovery team, who placed a frame over the capsule with a slide for the crew to go down. They were immediately wrapped in insulated bags and blankets and placed in chairs, where they were checked by flight surgeons and posed for photos.
The two Russians appeared tired or anxious at times, but Hopkins grinned broadly and patted the shoulders of his helpers. He kept up a rigorous exercise program aboard the space station as part of his "Train Like Mike" fitness program for NASA, to counteract bone and muscle loss in microgravity.
The next couple of weeks will determine what impact the training regimen had on his adjustment back to Earth, he said.
"Right now, I definitely feel good, but I don't feel that strong at the moment," Hopkins said in his interview. "It's amazing how it feels to be under 1G again."
After the landing, the crew members were flown by helicopter to a nearby airport, where they were able to walk with help and answer questions at a press conference.
They were presented with several gifts, including a traditional green velvet Kazak costume and musical instrument and Russian nesting dolls with their likenesses.
Political tensions between Russia and the U.S. heightened during their mission over the crisis in Ukraine, but the crew members didn't mention that.
They did talk about the arrival of the Olympic torch, which was brought to the space station with a new crew and returned to Earth with three members who had completed their mission.
Kotov called it a "remarkable moment" for the Russians aboard. The torch wasn't lit, which would be impossible in open space, but "we had the Olympic flame in our hearts and our souls," he said.
The space station "symbolizes what we are as a human species — not as different countries, but what we as people can do when we come together and forget about all the things that make us different," Hopkins said. "It's something that can pull us all together and help us learn more about our life here on Earth but then also help prepare us for our future going beyond low-Earth orbit."