Rough Ride Home

Three space station astronauts are glad to be back on terra firma after an off-course landing in a Russian Soyuz capsule.

The Soyuz TMA-11 capsule lies on its side on the Kazakh steppe after landing. Search teams and companies involved in the rescue have planted their flags nearby. NASA/Reuters/Pool

There was an elephant in the room, and it was sitting on their chests. For astronauts Yuri Malenchenko of Russia, Peggy Whitson of the United States, and Yi So-yeon of South Korea, that’s about how it felt on Saturday, April 19, 2008, as the trio endured more than eight Gs during reentry from orbit. At 25 times the speed of sound, their Soyuz capsule plowed bluntly into the upper reaches of the atmosphere like a stone into water. The air pushed back, slowing the vehicle and pressing the occupants steadily harder into their seats. Meanwhile, air molecules scraped across the exterior of the Soyuz and heated it to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The math is simple: This kind of deceleration crushes a 200-pound man—turned with his back to Earth—enough to make him feel like 1,600 pounds; a 125-pound woman would feel like half a ton.

It’s not supposed to get this extreme. But for the second time in a row, a Soyuz spacecraft suffered a major reentry glitch, the cause still undetermined. Early indicators point toward explosive bolts that may have failed to disengage the lower propulsion module from the central crew capsule before reentry. It’s possible that the ship began to enter the atmosphere in a dangerous orientation, because the astronauts reported a violent buffeting. Eventually, the stubborn segment broke away, freeing the descent module to right itself. By then, the hatch and an antenna had been severely baked; Malenchenko later reported smoke inside the capsule.

The Soyuz ended up on a trajectory that scientists and engineers call ballistic, or unguided. It fell more steeply to Earth, accounting for the higher G load on the astronauts.

“I saw 8.2 Gs on the meter, and it was pretty dramatic,” said Whitson shortly after her return. “Gravity’s not really my friend right now, and 8 Gs was especially not my friend.”

The Soyuz landed almost 300 miles short of its intended target. Locals helped the astronauts out of their spaceship, while Russian space agency personnel showed up 45 minutes later.

Hardly a smooth return. NASA has deferred to its Russian partners as they investigate the charred Soyuz for clues as to why it stumbled at the start of its fall. With the space shuttle program ending in 2010, Soyuz will become the only means of human transport to the space station until NASA begins flying the Orion crew exploration vehicle in 2015.

Whitson, the station’s first female commander, now has more time in space than any other U.S. astronaut. Her 377 days over two space station tours edges Mike Foale’s 374 days over six spaceflight missions.

Photographers from NASA and the press were on hand in Kazakhstan as ground teams located the Soyuz,  flew to retrieve the crew, and brought them back to Moscow. For a collection of their on-the-scene photos, see the gallery at right.

NASA chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, left, and Michael Suffredini, manager of the International Space Station program, study a map of central Kazakhstan prior to the Soyuz TMA-11 landing. The Soyuz capsule came down nearly 300 miles short of its planned target, but the crew reported by satellite phone to recovery forces that they were in good shape. NASA/Bill Ingalls
A Russian search-and-rescue helicopter waits for refueling at the Arkalyk airport in Kazakhstan prior to the landing of the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft on April 19. After picking up the crew, the helicopters returned them to another staging area at Kostanay before heading home to Moscow. NASA/Bill Ingalls
A Kazakh herdsman guides cattle across the tarmac at the Arkalyk airport, a staging area for Soyuz rescues. NASA/Bill Ingalls
The downed Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft (lower right) sits next to a burning field shortly after landing in central Kazakhstan. Farmers in the area were doing controlled burns at the time. NASA/Reuters/Pool
Russian ground crews inspect the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft after the landing. NASA/Reuters/Pool
A Russian ground crew member marks the exact site of the Soyuz landing with a GPS device. NASA/Reuters/Pool
The Soyuz TMA-11 capsule lies on its side on the Kazakh steppe after landing. Search teams and companies involved in the rescue have planted their flags nearby. NASA/Reuters/Pool
After picking up the Soyuz crew, rescue helicopters head for the Kazakh city of Kostanay before making the long trip back to Moscow. NASA/Reuters/Pool
Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson holds flowers shortly after landing. With two space station tours behind her, Whitson has now spent more time in space than any other American astronaut. NASA/Reuters/Pool
After more than six months of weightlessness, Peggy Whitson is helped from a helicopter by rescue teams. NASA/Reuters/Pool
Soyuz Commander Yuri Malenchenko sits in a rescue helicopter after the landing. With four flights to his credit, Malenchenko has spent a total of 514 days in space. NASA/Reuters/Pool
South Korean Yi So-yeon jokes with Russian doctors in a helicopter shortly after landing. Crewmates Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko had been 192 days in space, while Yi spent only 11 days in orbit. NASA/Reuters/Pool
The crew's Russian flight suits lie on the ground at the landing site. NASA/Reuters/Pool
Women in traditional dress wait to welcome the returning Soyuz crew at the Kostanay airport in Kazakhstan. NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson waves to a crowd of well wishers from the top of the airplane steps as she arrives at Chkalovsky airport near Moscow. NASA/Bill Ingalls
Yuri Malenchenko (center), Peggy Whitson (red jacket) and Yi So-yeon (head visible at lower left) meet with Russian space officials on the tarmac upon their arrival in Moscow. Standing nearby, outside of the frame of the picture, are the returning space travelers' families. NASA/Bill Ingalls

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