Aiming for Arkalyk

Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.

This ain’t Cape Canaveral, pal.  The place is what passes for an airport in Kustanai, Kazakhstan; the date, February 19, 1998.  The temperature is -13 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to hurt your face the second you turn toward the wind.  Cold enough for men to freeze to death if, say, rescuers can’t find the space capsule that just brought them back to Earth.

A motley collection of two dozen Russian space professionals and aficionados—scientists, doctors, cameramen, parliamentary staffers—cling to the edge of an air strip despite the weather.  They stare off into the board-flat central Asian steppe, as if a determined eye could cover the 250 miles to where three cosmonauts already should have touched down.  General Yuri Glazkov, a spaceflight veteran himself who looks like a fireplug and sounds like a bullhorn, is rallying the faithful in his own inimitable fashion.  “Whoever is cold didn’t drink enough,” he bellows.  Beneath the bluster, though, Glazkov, deputy director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, is worried about his men.

Here at Kustanai the afternoon sun is brilliant.  But at the landing site a blizzard is raging.  Wind gusts across the naked steppe at up to 60 mph.  Visibility is virtually zero.  This is how Mother Earth has seen fit to welcome back three space travelers—Russians Anatoly Solovyev and Pavel Vinogradov and Frenchman Leopold Eyharts—after a long, stressful repair mission on the Mir space station.  Normally, 30 or 40 people would be on hand to greet them at the landing site.  But the weather is so treacherous that only one helicopter with essential crew members has been dispatched from Kustanai for the rescue.  All that the rest of us can do is wait.

It has been 27 years since Russia lost a cosmonaut returning to orbit—June 1971, when rescuers opened the Soyuz 11 capsule to find its three-man crew dead, victims of a blown valve that vented their oxygen supply to space.  Over a decade has passed since a returning capsule missed its target by more than a dozen miles.  Soyuz landings have become like U.S. space shuttle landings—routine and for the most part trouble-free.

Yet today is the nastiest landing weather anyone on hand can remember.  No one is breathing easy until Solovyev and Vinogradov—Tolya and Pasha, as they are known within this intimate group—and their French companion are home in one piece.

Once a whole country would have shared in the suspense.  But gone are the days when Soviet space landings drew crowds of air marshals and ministers, when the nation was glued to the radio for news, when swooning schoolgirls begged handsome cosmonauts for autographs.  The small group of die-hards who set forth yesterday from the cosmonauts’ home base in Star City outside Moscow has more the feel of a community picnic—one mistakenly planned for the height of a hurricane.

Reaching Kustanai has been a minor adventure in itself.  We non-essential personnel (the rescue team flew ahead separately) made the journey in the cosmonaut retrieval airplane, a custom-equipped Tupolev Tu-154 with railcar-style sleeping compartments replacing half the seats.  On the morning of our departure from Star City’s Chkalovskoye military airport, Mike Baker, the four-time U.S. shuttle astronaut who now heads NASA’s liaison office for human spaceflight in Russia, drove up to the runway late, grinning excessively for such an early hour.  “These people are crazy,” he muttered to Herve Stevenin, director of crew training for the French space agency.  “We were already drinking vodka in the car over here.”

Down in Kazakhstan the tempest had already begun, shutting down the airport at Kustanai, a two-and-a-half-hour flight to the southeast.  We briefly placed our hope in two airfields farther south, near Baikonur, the cosmonauts’ launch site.  But neither location, as it turned out, had electricity.  The local Kazakh utility, unsentimental about past greatness, had cut them off for non-payment.

With the news Glazkov left in an atmospheric huff and was gone for two hours.  After “titanic efforts,” he explained on his return, he had managed to cadge a landing slot at Karaganda, a heavy industrial center an hour east of Kustanai.  “At least we know a hotel there,” enthused Igor Rudyayev, the cosmonaut training center’s PR man for the journey.  “Sometimes we have to sleep in the plane.”

By noon the next day, just three hours before the cosmonauts were due to land, Kustanai finally gave arrival clearance, and our airplane revved toward the Karaganda runway for takeoff.  Ex-Soviet friendship broke down again at this point, though.  Airport officials boarded the craft demanding a $400 landing fee.  Glazkov let forth a predictable stream of barracks Russian, but after an hour of dickering he paid up.

So it goes when your landing site is 1,100 miles from home, located in what is now, but didn’t used to be, another country.

The drama of American spaceflight, at least to those watching the Apollo moon landings on TV, was always packed into the launch, with its pillars of fire and taut voiceover from mission control.  Astronauts’ return to Earth was a happy-ending anticlimax.  On splashdown days the ocean always seemed calm and sun-speckled, the Navy’s recovery ships (we never used the word “rescue”) an easy distance from the reentry capsule.

The Soviet Union, however, had no tropical coast.  The Caspian Sea is not far, in Soviet terms, from the Baikonur launch facility, and is at roughly the same latitude.  But the Caspian is a stormy, temperamental body of water, densely packed with fishing boats.  So landing gear and procedures had to be designed for land.

The target zone selected was near the town of Arkalyk, about 150 miles north of Baikonur.  Yuri Gagarin and others who soloed in the early-1960s Vostok vehicle simply ejected on the way down, returning to Earth like paratroopers who happened to take the pilot’s seat with them.  But when the Soviet designers switched to the Soyuz design in the mid-‘60s, hoping to beat Apollo to the moon, they added a reentry capsule with room for three cosmonauts.

Steppe has less give in it than ocean.  So along with parachutes to slow the capsule’s descent through the atmosphere, Soyuz engineers added four retrorockets, which ignite just above the ground like a fiery set of brakes.  Even with specially molded, spring-backed seats to cushion the impact, cosmonauts get a jolt on landing similar to a skydiver’s, except that they’re strapped in their chairs and have nowhere to roll.  They take it all in the back and kidneys.

After that jarring landing, they needed to be found and brought back.  Which is why a team of experienced rescuers arrived in Kustanai ahead of us to work out the details of who should go retrieve the Soyuz crew and how.  Normally, Russia’s Federal Search and Rescue Service sends three Mil Mi-8 helicopters to do the job, one for each cosmonaut.  Normally they have a 30- to 40-minute flight from Arkalyk.  But today is not normal, and they’ll be flying out of Kustanai, two hours away.  Rescue service officials decide to send only one helicopter (deep-sixing our own plan to tag along with the rescue party).  There is only one pilot the officials trust to fly blind through the storm, then find a small spaceship somewhere within a 25-mile-diameter circle.  His name is Anatoly Mikhalishev.

With him he takes a 10-member crew headed by the training center’s chief physician, Oleg Fyodorov.  Three of the 10 will not come back, at least not immediately.  They have to yield their places to the cosmonauts, then wait in the thin cover of the vacated space capsule until a back-up chopper gets through to pick them up.  The rescuers are not particularly fazed, though.  This is the same A-team that puts cosmonauts (and a few lucky American astronauts) through three-day survival training at Tiksi on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.  In the off-season they test how long trainees can last in the Turkmenistan desert with two liters of water.  Let Mikhalishev find the spacecraft; they’ll stay out as long as they need to.

Russian mission control, which goes by the acronym TsUP, has been directing this spaceflight from back in Moscow for the entire six months that Solovyev and Vinogradov have been in orbit.  Yet once the Soyuz splits from Mir and begins plummeting to Earth, the brain trust at TsUP can do little but cross their fingers.  Voice contact ceases due to ionization of the surrounding air as the capsule falls at terrifying speed from 186-mile-high orbit to an altitude of only six miles in about 20 minutes.  (French cosmonaut Eyharts reported later that he found the plunge “particularly exciting.”)  For TsUP controllers, who know that death can lurk beyond that wall of silence, it remains a trial.

At 31,000 feet, the altitude of commercial jet flights, the first two in a sequence of four braking parachutes pop open.  By 24,000 feet the Soyuz has slowed enough to open its main parachute, a behemoth that when fully unfurled covers 10,000 square feet—almost half the area of a football field.  TsUP can hear the cosmonauts again during this phase of descent.  But responsibility for tracking them, by ancient bureaucratic custom, passes to rescue service controllers in Kazakhstan.  On calm days, their radar locates the capsule fairly accurately.  But when high winds are buffeting the capsule during its parachute descent, as they are today, the radar had trouble holding the track.  The Mi-8 pilot must then use his own wits and eyesight.

Mikhalishev had the Soyuz capsule on his helicopter’s onboard radar until about 13,000 feet, then lost the signal.  He was guided now only by squawks on the radio from mission commander Solovyev.  Tolya is a proven quantity, returning from his fifth mission on Mir, where a month earlier he celebrated his 50th birthday.  He has right stuff beyond question, having seen more open cosmos than any other Earth inhabitant over the course of seven spacewalks totaling some 60 hours.  On the other hand, he has always taken landings hard, emerging from the capsule doubled over by motion sickness.

During the last few moments of descent Mikhalishev strained to make visual contact and timed his own landing to coincide with touchdown of the spacecraft.  Suddenly the Mi-8 had landed in the deep snow, with the Soyuz capsule right next to it.  How it happened none of the rest of the crew could say.  “All I could see was frost covering the window,” Fyodorov recalled later.  “Visibility was nil.  This was just the art of the pilot, a very experienced pilot.”

After half a year on Mir and more than three hours in their womb-like reentry vehicle, alighting cosmonauts generally welcome a little fresh Earth air, no matter how chilly.  Service etiquette dictates that when rescuers pop the hatch, the returning space traveler’s first words be “Vsyo normalno”—everything’s fine.  Also de rigueur is an attempt to climb down the ladder from the hatchway unaided.  Thanks to Mir’s three-hour daily exercise regime, many cosmonauts do return I surprisingly good shape.  The legendary example is Anatoly Artsebarsky, who after a six-month mission in 1991 remained standing through an interminable reception in his honor back in Arkalyk.

After this show of grit, cosmonauts are ushered into folding chairs where, weather permitting, they whip off their space helmets and enjoy the Kazakh breeze.  Doctors take pulses and blood pressure, and the reentrants are offered tea.  Sometimes they hold impromptu press conferences.

Meanwhile rescuers are blowing up a small inflatable field hospital, complete with an operating theater, which is ready within ten minutes of touchdown.  The cosmonauts are brought into the heated interior and removed from their spacesuits.  Clothes sweated through during the high-temperature reentry also are changed.  Next follows an EKG, blood tests, and a rigorous hour-long physical.  A surgical team stands by, but its services have never been needed.

This is how it happens usually.  But today is not much of a day for sipping tea or pitching tents.  Three stretchers on the helicopter floor will have to do.  Mikhalishev keeps the blades churning while Fyodorov’s team rushes through pared-down physicals.  Half an hour later, they’re in the air, headed back toward civilization.

Meanwhile, in Kustanai, it’s time for lunch.  Herve Stevenin, the French space official, looks forlornly at a sophisticated incubator he’d hoped to take to the landing site to hold six salamanders who’ve been busily laying eggs on board Mir.  He fears the reptiles will freeze before he sees them again.  Glazkov and his Star City back-benchers have long ago drifted despondently from the runway, their own hopes of reaching the landing site dashed.

Yet certain courtesies must be observed.  The political elite of Kustanai—a featureless cinderblock settlement of 300,000 people thrown up, like nearly everything else in northern Kazakhstan, to exploit a nearby metals seam—have turned out in their finery.  A Jeep Cherokee awaits the most important Moscow visitors; a sharp new touring bus will transport the lower-downs, like doctors and journalists.  The pasty official toast-mastering the less exclusive banquet is the picture of provincial ex-Soviet sleaze, and is obsessed with the idea of touring the local chocolate factory.  But after four or five vodkas and a steaming bowl of borscht, he kind of grows on everybody.

The drama and danger of space landing start to recede from our thoughts.  Yet some Russian space veterans can recall past disasters only too well.  Between 1967 and 1976 Soyuz spacecraft experienced five serious accidents.  Four of them involved failures during reentry or landing.  Two were fatal.

Disaster struck on the very first Soyuz flight—April 23, 1967—and old-timers still curse the apparatchiks for it.  The record strongly suggests that the new vehicle was not ready for flight.  That was what the U.S. intelligence concluded, based on the mistaken premise that the Soyuz had undergone four test launches.  In fact there had been only three.

But 1967 was the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, and the Party wanted something to boast about on May Day.  So Vladimir Komarov was sent up for a three-day mission.  Trouble began when one of the vehicle’s solar arrays failed to open.  Several key systems failed for lack of power, including the one that navigated the reentry.  Komarov managed to find the right trajectory manually and landed on target.  But rescuers found his ship on fire, with onlookers from the nearby village of Karabatuk frantically throwing dirt on it.  Komarov’s charred bones were later found inside, along with a main parachute that had failed to open.

This was Russian spaceflight’s grisliest moment until Soyuz 11 returned to Earth in June 1971.  Mission control had no inkling of trouble during the capsule’s descent, and a hero’s welcome awaited Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, the first crew to live on the Salyut space station.  Popping the hatch, rescuers found the cosmonauts in place and untouched, but dead.  The best postmortem guess was that an air vent meant to open well within the atmosphere (at 13,000 feet) opened instead in space when the reentry capsule separated from the Soyuz orbital module.  Death by pulmonary embolism took less than a minute.

In between fatal accidents came Boris Volinov’s miraculous survival of the 1969 Soyuz 5 landing.  Leaving orbit, his small reentry capsule failed to disengaged from the rest of the Soyuz vehicle.  Volinov hurtled toward Earth with a flaming three-ton piece of excess baggage on his back.  “They say that in TsUP someone started passing a hat for funeral money,” writes Mikhail Rebrov, a Russian military journalist who himself trained as a cosmonaut in the 1960s.  Fortunately the capsule finally disengaged, and the parachutes opened.  But the impact broke all of Volinov’s upper teeth at the roots.

That detail, of course, was hidden from the public.  TASS reported only that “A unique experiment was concluded.  The ship landed in the designated region.”  An old-school flier who put duty first, Volinov even came out to meet the official press as he flew back to Moscow, holding his hand over his face to hide the injuries.  “Takeoff proceeded normally.  The technology worked reliably,” he told them, then politely signed a few autographs.  Doctors told Volinov his cosmonaut days were over.  Seven yeas later on Soyuz 21, he proved them wrong.

But the landing that best revealed cosmonaut character was on Soyuz 18A in April 1975.  Vasily Lazarev and Oleg Makarov had risen to an altitude of 120 miles when their R-7 booster malfunctioned, prompting an abort.  Instead of soaring into orbit, the pair plummeted back to Earth on a trajectory that raised their G-level above 20.  Test pilots’ kidneys have ruptured at 15 Gs.

Twenty-one minutes after takeoff the cosmonauts’ capsule was hanging by its enormous parachute from a tree in what turned out to be the Altai mountains of southern Siberia, near the Mongolian boarder.  April is still winter in Altai.  It was snowing hard and getting dark.  The cosmonauts leapt out into waist-deep snow and divined that their ship was at the edge of a precipice, its weight slowly snapping the pine branches that held it.  Another few yards and they would have fallen to certain death.  Lazarev and Makarov whipped off their spacesuits and used them to prop up the precious capsule, facing the freezing night dressed only in track suits.  Rescuers flew overhead and made radio contact, but were unable to land in the stormy night.  Luckily, the next morning was clear enough for a helicopter to hover above the trees and drop a ladder to the cosmonauts.  The reentry vehicle survived the fly again.

Communist bureaucracy showed its face most clearly after the last great Soyuz landing mishap, which happened in October 1976.  This time Soyuz 23 strayed off course and landed in Kazakhstan’s Lake Tengiz.  It was another night when rescue helicopters were no match for the Soviet elements—temperatures of seven below zero, the lake enveloped in thick fog.  The reentry capsule floated, but the sinking parachute turned it upside down, its exit hatch sunk in the half-frozen water.  Ice quickly covered the ship’s air vent, leaving cosmonauts Vyacheslav Zudov and Valery Rozhdestvensky depending on a backup oxygen supply to stay alive.

Suddenly there was a knock at the cabin window.  One of the rescuers, a Captain Chernyavsky, had taken up the search himself in a rubber raft.  How he found the spacecraft three miles from shore in that fog is an abiding mystery of Russian space lore.  He probably saved the crew’s life by clearing off the ventilator until choppers and frogmen fished them out in the morning.  According to Russian space historian Geli Salahuddinov, Chernyavsky was fired for his unapproved initiative.  Furious cosmonauts got him reinstated.

The Soyuz TM-26 crew that landed safely near here today is well versed in this history, and presumably is content with Kustanai’s low-key hospitality, happy just to be back.  In fact, the city fathers have turned out quite a crowd—replete with doe-eyed Kazakh maidens in native costume, sweetly bearing trays of bread and salt, traditional greeting gifts—by the time Mikhalishev comes whooshing up in his rescue helicopter a little after 2 p.m.

Anatoly Solovyev does his best to return the courtesy, staggering down the steps from the helicopter with a rescuer gripping each arm.  He flops down on a bench, peering from a hooded sweatshirt with a look that seems a combination of extreme nausea and childlike wonder.  But he gathers enough strength to lurch inside the airport, where Kustanai’s mayor drapes a medal around his neck.  Then the rescuers carry Solovyev out and everyone rushes for the Moscow-bound airplane.  Anatoly Mikhalishev opens the window of his Mi-8 cockpit and looks on with a haggard grin.

The happiest man on the flight home is Nikolai Krayev, the strapping young blond rescuer who opened the hatch and pulled Tolya and Pasha to safety out on the raging steppe.  Swigging vodka from a Coke bottle, he indulges in some well-deserved boasting.  “These were extreme conditions,” Krayev enthuses.  “Write that down: e-x-t-r-e-m-e.  Visibility was zero.  That means nil.”

The second happiest passenger is Herve Stevenin, who has not only his astronaut back but his salamanders too.  Ecstatically, he lifts the reptiles to be photographed.

Leopold Eyharts, after three weeks in orbit, looks no worse than someone with medium-intensity flu.  The station proved a “very, very busy” place for the 40-year-old guest cosmonaut during his short tour on Mir.  Week one involved “very intense adaptation” to weightlessness and the environment on board the station, he says.  The rest of his stay was a blur of scientific work stretching from early morning until 10 or 11 at night.

I ask Vinogradov what he found most difficult about spending 200 days in space, and the 43-year-old first-time cosmonaut replies, “Lack of diversity in sources of information.  All day long it’s TsUP communications, and 99 percent of the information is professional.  They sent us up newspapers once when the crew changed, but they were already a week and a half old.”

During his half-year in orbit Vinogradov had time to mull over the emotional aspects of long-duration space travel.  “You cannot battle with the cosmos.  You can only get used to it,” he reflects, then lapses into silence waiting for the next question.

Mir’s designers know how to maintain the human body through extended exposure to microgravity.  But Vinogradov suggests that there is no pat cure for the mental strain.  “The most difficult situation occurs if you do not have understanding within the crew, when different people have different reactions to a situation,” he notes enigmatically.  He does not elaborate.  Instead he calls to mind the gung-ho style of cosmonauts past, insisting that all he wants now is to prepare for the next mission.  He does admit he might need a month to rest.

Vinogradov and Solovyev risked their lives to ensure that there would be more missions to Mir.  Yet their efforts to patch the aging station may have been in vain.  Russia’s space leadership has ordered Mir moved into lower orbit, a first step toward junking it.  Someday soon the heroics of Mikhalishev and Krayev will likely be consigned to history too.  Seen through the cold eye of technological progress, the crash-landing Soyuz and the whirring Mi-8 are relics of the Soviet era, long past the prime of their lives.

Today, though, the tired cosmonauts can take satisfaction in a job well executed as they readjust to the sights and smells and gravitational tug of Earth.  Not long after takeoff, a still wobbly Eyharts leaves his cabin to hit the bathroom, only lightly supported by the resident French physician.  The small crowd goes wild.

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