Hurtling homeward

The world's most ambitious space venture came close to disaster last month, in a terrifying incident that went virtually unreported in the mainstream media. For an hour, flight controllers in Moscow and Houston did not know if the crew of this Soyuz capsule was alive or dead, and Korea's first astronaut was not released from hospital until last Wednesday, 15 May, almost a month after the incident.


The crew – two women and a man – were returning from the International Space Station. American Peggy A Whitson had been the first female commander of the station and had spent six months in weightlessness with her Russian crew mate Yuri Malenchenko. South Korean biologist So-yeon Yi was returning after a week aboard the station, paid for by the South Korean government in a commercial deal with the Russians. Their ride home was described by Whitson as “pretty, pretty dramatic”.

The 120 kilometre plunge from orbit lasted about 23 minutes as the Russian capsule dived violently through the atmosphere. Smoke filled the cabin, communications were lost with ground control, and the crushing force of gravity – eight to 10 times more than that experienced on earth – brought at least one crew member close to fainting. The capsule fell like a stone until the lower atmosphere slowed it down, with hot gases causing the vehicle to glow red-hot as outside temperatures soared to more than 1,000 degrees centigrade. Finally, four parachutes deployed and as the craft floated to within a meter and a half of the Earth's surface small rockets fired in an attempt to cushion the impact. However, the capsule hit the ground very heavily, and South Korean media reported that Yi suffered “a mild dislocation and bruise of the vertebrae” in her back.

The capsule landed 400 kilometres short of its planned landing site, in the Kazakhstan steppes, and the crew had to be dragged from their smouldering vehicle by local tribesmen, who helped them to telephone Mission Control on a satellite phone carried aboard the Soyuz for such emergencies.

This was the second consecutive chaotic and dangerous landing by a Soyuz space capsule, and it raises urgent new concerns about the spacecraft's reliability in ferrying astronauts to and from the international space station. These worries are compounded by the fact that from the summer of 2010 the US space shuttle fleet will be retired and the United States and Europe will be entirely dependent on Russian capsules and rockets for transporting astronauts to the station, until at least 2015.

The Soyuz has been a remarkably safe and reliable spacecraft for four decades, and there is concern that quality control in the Russian aerospace industry is compromised because, to quote one official, “young Russians want to become accountants and lawyers rather than engineers”.
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