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Soyuz Hard Landing: The Facts

Rescue helicopters next to the askew Soyuz on Saturday (Shamil Zhumatov)
Now the dust has settled news sources appear to be coherently reporting the events that unfolded early Saturday morning. As several readers have shown concern that reporting on the Soyuz ballistic re-entry makes us opposed to Russian efforts in space, I hope these points clearly show that this is not the case. In actuality, without the Russian Soyuz fleet of personnel/cargo supply spacecraft, much of the international community’s plans for space would be scuppered. So, what do we know happened after the Soyuz descent capsule undocked from the space station in the early hours of Saturday?

Well, most of the original reports appeared to be fairly accurate. From Tuesday, it seems that much of the reports from news agencies in the US and UK have been corroborated with the Russian news agency Interfax. On April 23rd, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, gave a statement as to what went wrong. So here’s what we know:

  • Due to a technical fault, and not crew error, the Soyuz descent capsule did not separate from its propulsion module as planned. The explosive bolts used to separate the Soyuz modules before re-entry didn’t work on time. This may have resulted in the descent module and propulsion module hitting the atmosphere before they separated.
  • It is not clear if the modules were separated late by the explosive bolts, or if they were pulled apart (Gerstenmaier points out that they may break apart on re-entry, allowing the descent module and crew to make an emergency landing). Either way, a “ballistic re-entry” (rather than the planned guided re-entry) was the result. Ballistic re-entry was likened by Gerstenmaier to, “a bullet out of a rifle,” before the parachutes opened.
  • The crew experienced forces up to 8.2 times greater than Earth’s gravity.
  • The re-entry caused damage to the capsule escape hatch due to the angle of descent. Areas other than the heat shield had been burnt. The communications antenna was lost at this stage.
  • NASA confirms there was no communication with the capsule until cosmonaut Colonel Yuri Malenchenko was able to get free of the cabin and use a satellite phone to contact mission control. This was 30 minutes after touch-down.

The Soyuz landing site (Shamil Zhumatov)

So it appears the emergency landing was actually very successful. As pointed out by Gerstenmaier the Soyuz spacecraft design has “an inherent reliability in the system.” After all, the original manned Soyuz spacecraft design was launched in 1967, and since then there have been 99 missions (11 since 2002). It is a rugged and highly dependable space vehicle, and in 2010 when the Space Shuttle is retired we will need Soyuz to supply the space station and transport personnel. The Orion space ship isn’t scheduled to launch until 2015, so there is a five year gap that will need to be filled. NASA is looking into commercial options, but the tried, tested and reliable Soyuz remains the best option.

However, the way this incident was handled is highly worrying. I just hope that a thorough investigation into the technical fault and the way Russian officials covered up events is carried out, so future re-entries can be better managed.

In case you missed the Universe Today coverage of this story:

Sources: New York Times, McClatchy
, Orlando Sentinel

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jon April 25, 2008, 4:34 PM

    Could you honestly say the US would have been absolutely open and honest about a potential failure when they weren’t completely exposed immediately (eg Columbia, Genesis)?

    I think it’s human nature for leaders to want to keep perceptions as they want them.

  • Gudenboink April 26, 2008, 11:21 PM

    I agree with Greg!! Universe Today is THE one and only forum for expressing opinions and level headed coverage of the things that truly matter in todays so called “reality TV” Crap riddled………… ………media type …. CRAP! No wonder terrorists hate us.
    Anyway, sorry – I Digress (digest)

    The one thing Russia has and will always have over the Western Countries as far as Space and Flight goes is……. “winging” emergencies and situations not in the play books. Yes – they will take far greater risks than we will and they have a safety record in flight and space that we would find unacceptable. But at the same time, when we do make mistakes and have accidents, we over ANAL-ize each and every situation to cover every politically correct basis. The near accidents on Mir (at least the ones that we know about) are the types of situations Astronauts and Cosmonauts will need to dive into when we find ourselves 20 million miles from Earth headed to Mars. (which is exactly why we need to “practice” going to the Moon FIRST)

    If we were to abide by todays standards regarding the risks of Space flight way back in the Apollo days, we would have never made the Moon landing by the end of the decade like our stated goal was. The Space Race with the Soviet Union is why we took far more chances and risks than we would ever dream of taking today.

    Case in point — Apollo I had the devastating fire that killed all three Astronauts in 1967. We kept right on launching them after a few months of fact finding and slight re-design and with in 18 months (or so) Apollo XI landed on the moon.

    After the two Shuttle accidents it is quite clear how much safety concerns have become most important- AND THEY should be- but ask the Astronauts and Cosmonauts how they feel about Manned Space Flight after an accident and you will always get the same answer.

    Space will always be dangerous and we must take the risks- no matter what the costs. It’s the public (Media Whores, really) that do the most freaking out. If the Astronauts had thier way they would be right back flying the very next week.

    As far as the 6 O’Clock news is concerned — If it bleeds – it leads…………

  • GDI May 1, 2008, 12:11 PM

    Soyuz has actually been a reliable vehicle through the years and has been a workhorse. The capsule itself could be used in the future for crews returning from Mars because of its tough ablative heat shield. I personally believe it would be a mistake Russia to give up the venerable Soyuz – it is relatively cheap to build, launch and operate compared to the Space Shuttle.

  • Big Ian May 23, 2008, 4:13 AM

    Safe is a fairly relative term when it comes to space flight. I’m surprised the article doesn’t mention the death of the Soyuz 11 Crew on re-entry.

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