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Soyuz Landing Will Be Probed

The spacecraft's 'ballistic descent' that put it 290 miles off target was 'a real test flight!' a returning U.S. astronaut exclaims.

May 05, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — As a U.S.-Russian crew returned to Moscow on Sunday after a rough and off-target Soyuz spaceship landing, officials said a special commission will probe what went wrong with the craft's descent from the orbiting international space station.

The spacecraft landed safely in Kazakhstan early Sunday using a second-choice backup procedure that involved a steeper fall to the ground and placed greater gravitational stress on the occupants. It landed north of the Aral Sea, about 290 miles short of the intended landing site.

During at least part of its reentry into the atmosphere, the craft was essentially in a free fall, with its descent later slowed by parachutes.

"All is fine," U.S. astronaut Kenneth Bowersox, smiling broadly, declared in good Russian to reporters at the site. "It was a real test flight!"

U.S. astronaut Donald Pettit was reported to feel weak and nauseated after landing -- not surprising given the effects of nearly six months of weightlessness followed by the brief experience of about nine times the Earth's gravitational force during the sharp descent. Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, the flight commander, was described by a Russian space official as being "in perfect shape."

Later in the day, Bowersox described the ride down as "fantastic."

"For me as a test pilot, it was a really great experience," he said. "It's something I've always dreamed of."

As the descent began, the three-man crew expected a routine landing but then realized that they would touch down far short of their target, Bowersox said.

"When we saw the signs on the displays, our eyes got very wide," he said.

Soyuz craft normally return to Earth in a "controlled descent," in which the ship's power is used to create a more gentle trajectory, but they are also capable of making a "ballistic descent" on a free-fall path, explained Russian technicians at Mission Control Center in Korolyov, just outside Moscow. The latter option results in a quick landing short of the target area.

The ballistic descent "makes the entry a lot shorter, so before we knew it, we were on the ground," Bowersox said.

Communication with the crew was lost during the descent, contributing to a delay of more than two hours in locating the capsule. By the time a spotter plane found it, the astronauts had opened the hatch and stood on the ground waving.

Russian officials said the investigating commission will examine all possible explanations, including technical failure and human error by the crew or at Mission Control.

"This capsule has a lot of new equipment and has never landed before," explained Alexander Serebro, a former Russian cosmonaut. "I don't think the Americans should be seriously scared and concerned about what happened. They have no choice anyway but to wait for the Russians to find out the reasons and improve the performance."

Sunday's flight marked the first time U.S. astronauts had returned from space in a Soyuz. This was also the first landing for an updated model called the Soyuz TMA.

Yuri Koptev, head of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, said it was too soon to say why the capsule missed its target area.

"There are many variants, from the actions of the crew to a fault in some system," he said. "We need the information which we get after we bring the capsule back to Moscow."

In the secretive early days of the Soviet Union's manned space program, a capsule came down far more spectacularly off-course.

"There was something like this, not to go into technical details, in the middle of the 1960s with cosmonauts Leonov and Belyaev," said Russian space agency spokesman Sergei Gorbunov.

Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyaev missed their target by more than 600 miles, and search teams took two or three days to find them, officials said. Until now, the incident has not been widely known, even in Russia.

Russia's NTV television broadcast brief footage Sunday of Leonov and Belyaev that it said was taken in 1967 in the northern Ural Mountains; their touchdown was supposed to be in Kazakhstan. The footage showed the cosmonauts in deep snow and sharing a tube of space food, hamming it up for the camera after they were found by rescue crews.

The crew of Sunday's flight originally was scheduled to return from the international space station in a U.S. space shuttle. But the American shuttle fleet was grounded after the February breakup of Columbia. That left the Soyuz as the only vehicle available to bring the men home.

After landing, the three were first flown to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, where three girls in green and violet Kazakh costumes gave red roses to Bowersox and Budarin before they boarded a plane for Moscow. Pettit had to be helped up the steps.

The wives of all three men awaited their return in Moscow. Michelle Pettit rushed to embrace her husband, who by that time was feeling better.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who was at Mission Control, had strong praise for the Russian performance.

"At the time we needed them most, our Russian partners have excelled," O'Keefe said. "The international space station program goes on because of their commitment."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Korolyov, Russia, contributed to this report.

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