Space Station Crew Returns to Earth Off Course but Safe
A Russian Soyuz spaceship carrying a three-man U.S.-Russian crew back from the orbiting international space station touched down safely in the remote steppes of Kazakhstan today in the first spacecraft landing since the Columbia shuttle disaster.
Helicopter crews engaged in an intense search for the capsule for 2 1/2 hours after it apparently landed as much as 250 miles off target.
Russian officials at Mission Control in Korolyov, just outside Moscow, announced that the capsule had been opened and that all crew members -- Russian cosmonaut and flight commander Nikolai Budarin, and U.S. astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit -- were safe.
Tension built at Mission Control during the long search for the capsule.
The wives of the U.S. astronauts, Ann Bowersox and Michelle Pettit, sat mostly silent and tense in the visitor’s gallery for about 45 minutes after touchdown, then went out of sight into offices while awaiting word about the crew.
“Something must have gone wrong with the control system of the capsule,” a Russian specialist at Mission Control said on condition of anonymity. “Such situations are planned for too. It just makes it a steeper descent.”
A mood of celebration and relief swept the audience at Mission Control after it was announced: “The hatch is open and all the crew members feel good.”
“This is a cause for huge celebration,” said Vladimir Syromyatnikov, an official of Energiya Design Bureau, the corporation that builds the Soyuz. “Of course we were pretty nervous.”
“We are very excited, very pleased and very confident,” said NASA spokesman Carver Glenn Mahone after the announcement.
The trip marked the first time U.S. astronauts returned from space in a Soyuz. The bell-shaped, wingless capsule is a time-tested spacecraft with a good safety record, but this was the first landing for an updated model that can accommodate taller astronauts.
Before leaving the station, those heading home and the new two-man crew that arrived last week could be seen exchanging handshakes and emotional hugs in scenes beamed to Mission Control.
Then Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin floated through a passageway into their Russian Soyuz craft, and those staying behind could be seen locking the hatches.
“Nikolai, you now assume the command of the Soyuz TMA-1,” someone said in Russian from Mission Control.
After separation, the Soyuz could be seen on a giant Mission Control video screen as it moved slowly from the station.
After quick medical checks at the landing site, the three men were to fly to Moscow. They are to spend at least 16 days at Star City, a facility about 25 miles northeast of Moscow, for further medical tests and physical rehabilitation.
The crew, which had been at the space station since November, was originally scheduled to fly a U.S. shuttle back to Earth in early March. But with the American fleet grounded because of the February breakup of the Columbia, the Soyuz was the only vehicle available to bring them home. The men also carried back results of experiments conducted on the station.
U.S. astronaut Edward Lu and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko are scheduled to be at the orbiting station until October. The still-unfinished station is a joint $100-billion project of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency.
With the Columbia disaster forcing heightened awareness of the dangers of atmospheric reentry, concerns about safety were higher than generally has been the case -- even before today’s tense search for the capsule. The Soyuz has made safe landings for more than three decades. But in 1971, three cosmonauts died because of an air leak, and in 1967, one cosmonaut died when the capsule’s parachute systems failed.
Shortly after the crew undocked from the space station, Mission Control spokesman Vsevolod Latyshev acknowledged risks but expressed confidence in the craft’s reliability.
“Of course it’s dangerous to land, to enter the atmosphere, whether it’s a Soyuz capsule or a shuttle,” Latyshev said. “But frankly speaking, when you ride your car, it’s as risky as when you fly our capsule back to Earth. In the past, we used to have three landings a year. Yes, we did have two catastrophes, but those were completely different capsules, and the cosmonauts then didn’t wear special suits.”
The Soyuz, protected by a heat shield, was first slowed by the Earth’s atmosphere, then braked by a series of parachutes deployed one after another, and finally cushioned by the reverse thrust of small braking rockets fired about two seconds before touchdown.
The ride home in a Soyuz is far rougher than in a U.S. shuttle, with astronauts briefly experiencing up to seven times the force of Earth’s gravity. The only other American ever to land in a Soyuz, California millionaire “space tourist” Dennis Tito, told reporters last week in Florida that it was “a pretty wild ride.”
“You’re like a meteor coming through the atmosphere, little pieces of heat shield breaking off, flying by your window,” Tito said. “Holding on for dear life, hoping that the thing isn’t going to break up because at that point there’s nothing you can do.”
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Korolyov, Russia, contributed to this report.