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A 'Wonderful' Reacquaintance With Earth

The three-man space station crew reflects on its return and the Columbia tragedy.

May 07, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

STAR CITY, Russia — In good shape and high spirits Tuesday after their return from the international space station, the three members of a U.S.-Russian crew recounted the sweep of their experiences -- from sorrow at the Columbia shuttle disaster to a grueling reentry and finally celebration of the quiet joys of Earth.

A still-unexplained problem during their Sunday descent caused the men's Soyuz capsule to land using a backup procedure that subjected them to roughly double the gravitational force that they would have experienced in a normal landing. Their craft also landed about 290 miles short of its intended site, and the three had climbed out by themselves hours before rescuers arrived.

"For me, it felt like I was Atlas and had the weight of the whole world on my shoulders," U.S. astronaut Donald Pettit said of the reentry experience. But he was glad, he said, that after nearly six months in space, they had some time alone after touchdown. It took rescue crews more than two hours to locate the capsule and additional time to reach it.

"We'd been prepared that the landing site was going to be a bit of a mob scene, with lots of people and hustle and bustle," Pettit explained. "I was actually relieved to ooze out of the spacecraft and lay on Mother Earth and just have a solitude moment in which to get reacquainted."

U.S. astronaut Kenneth Bowersox, switching easily between languages during a news conference at Star City, a cosmonaut training center about 25 miles northeast of Moscow, said in Russian: "My brightest moments after having landed are, first, when I saw the brown ground and the green grass back in the steppe. It felt wonderful. Second, when I saw my wife after we got back to Moscow. And third, when I was taking a walk around Star City and it was raining. It was a wonderful cool rain."

Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin explained that the three men, unaccustomed to gravity, had been able only to crawl out of the capsule. He and Bowersox also took time at first just to lie on the ground "enjoying the fresh steppe air, which we had missed so much."

But the Soyuz had gone out of radio contact during the last stages of its descent, which prolonged the search by rescue crews.

"It was established later that a number of parachute cords had broken during the deployment of the drag parachute, and one of the ruptured cords had a VHF antenna in it," Budarin said. "So the antenna was broken."

"When we realized that the rescue services could be looking for us for quite a while and we had to take measures on our own, Ken -- who did a great job -- tried to climb back into the module with his suit on," Budarin said. Bowersox couldn't get through the entrance, so Budarin helped him out of his spacesuit and Bowersox tried again. But once he was back inside, the radio still wouldn't work.

Other antennas hadn't deployed properly and one that did open was facing the ground, Budarin said. The men tried to use a NASA radio, but the signal was too weak. So they mounted an antenna on the capsule and finally made contact again.

Budarin and the Americans said they do not believe that they did anything to cause the steeper-than-planned descent, although the cosmonaut expressed the most certainty.

Bowersox said that as a test pilot, he learned "never say for sure that you didn't make a mistake."

"The tape recorders are much better at analyzing the truth than the humans are," he explained.

But Budarin insisted "it is a sure fact" that the crew did not issue any commands for the change.

"It will become possible to talk about the reason for this only after the descent module is brought here and specialists establish the cause and draw their conclusions," he said.

Asked about the effect on them of the February breakup of Columbia, in which all seven crew members died, Bowersox said that when they first heard that the shuttle was in trouble, the space station crew hoped there might be survivors. Once they knew there were none, "we had to start dealing with reality ... and we had to start the grieving process," he said.

"Up in space, for me anyway, my emotions sort of are more powerful," Bowersox said. "So when I thought about my friends, it could almost stop me from working.... And I was very thankful that we had work to do, because it would distract me from all of those emotions and allow me to continue forward."

Aside from the somber reflections on the Columbia disaster, the news conference was conducted in an atmosphere of relief and triumph.

Pettit, making an effort near the end of the event to demonstrate that he too can speak some Russian, drew appreciative laughter by declaring in that language his fondness for tvorog, or Russian-style cottage cheese.

"I liked it when I was up in space," he said, "and I like it now that I am back on Earth."

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