Soyuz Crew Safe After a Violent Re-entry and Landing 400km Off-target

The Russian Soyuz re-entry capsule, carrying the first South Korean astronaut back to Earth, suffered a “ballistic re-entry” on Saturday, putting the capsule 400 km (250 miles) off-target. This is the second time in a row that the return vessel has landed off course; even officials were shocked about this inaccuracy. The astronauts endured forces of up to 10-G as the capsule took a very steep trajectory as it dropped through the atmosphere for three and half hours. Fortunately the three crew members are safe and well. What’s the explanation for the mishap? An unauthorized change to the flight plan and an old naval superstition…

South Koreas Yi So-yeon spent 11 days at the International Space Station (AFP/BBC)
At least the whole crew returned to Earth safely after their violent re-entry, but questions are being asked as to why the capsule landed so far off course and 20 minutes behind schedule.

The Russian TMA-11 craft touched down on the Kazakh steppe at 4:51am Saturday morning after making the long trip through the atmosphere. On board was South Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and American Peggy Whitson, who broke NASA’s record for time in space. Whitson spent a total of 377 days orbiting the Earth whilst carrying out experiments on the International Space Station. Yi So-yeon spent 11 days on the station after a flawless Soyuz launch (April 8th) and stay in space. However things seemed to go wrong as the trio undocked from the station and headed home.

The Soyuz descent module (highlighted) (NASA)

According to the BBC report, Russian officials blamed the crew for making changes to the flight plan just before re-entry. This change was not communicated to mission control who assumed the original plan was going ahead. The result from this change was a steeper than normal angle on entering the atmosphere (a.k.a. a ballistic re-entry), putting the capsule hundreds of kilometres off course. Rescue helicopters took 25 minutes to arrive to the landing site where the crew waited in temperatures of 6°C (43°F). Other than the off-target location, apparently the touch-down went according to plan.

See the BBC video coverage of this event »

However, not all sources indicate the sole blame falling on a lack of communication between capsule and mission control. In a controversial statement to reporters, Federal Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov placed some of the blame on an old naval superstition that the female-dominated crew were bad luck and the first female commander (Peggy Whitson) was responsible for the change of plan.

You know in Russia, there are certain bad omens about this sort of thing, but thank God that everything worked out successfully. Of course in the future, we will work somehow to ensure that the number of women will not surpass [the number of men].” – Anatoly Perminov

Naturally, this kind of statement will have caused a bit of a stir. A reporter pushed for elaboration and Perminov continued, “This isn’t discrimination. I’m just saying that when a majority is female, sometimes certain kinds of unsanctioned behaviour or something else occurs, that’s what I’m talking about.”

It looks like some space agency officials still believe in old naval superstitions, let’s hope it doesn’t influence future female involvement in the Russian space program. If anything, as the whole crew is safe and well, the South Korean and American should be considered the mission’s “lucky charms”.

Update: April 22nd – Read the developments on this story…

Sources: BBC, Yahoo!,

10 Replies to “Soyuz Crew Safe After a Violent Re-entry and Landing 400km Off-target”

  1. It was not just a rough re-entry the South Korean astronaut ended up in the hospital for a week according to the South Korean Times.
    Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, was moved to a hospital in Moscow for recovery Sunday morning after safely landing on the Kazakhstan steppe Saturday evening.

    For about a week, Yi will undergo various medical check-ups while adjusting to gravity in the Gagarin Space Center hospital. She is expected to return to South Korea on April 28, where a heroine’s welcome awaits her.

  2. Adjusting to gravity? She wasn’t gone long. I think it has more to do with the fact that 10gs plastered her brain against the back of her skull.

    The Russians frakked up here. I smell cover-up.

  3. I have to go with the OverLord on this one. I think mission control and/or the pilot made some serious errors and are trying to cover their asses. I’m sure Putin is pissed, and he has a bunch of unused Siberian “facilities” that are aching for some funding from the Kremlin.

  4. Nothing like inventing a scapegoat instead of following the easier path of “Oops, I screwed up.”

  5. I find it hard to believe that the Russian Controllers would not be aware of what is going on in the Soyuz space craft especially if some one in the capsule inputs data that is not confirmed by control.

    Three and half hour re entry? Did this ballistic re entry bounce a couple of orbits in attempting to re enter the atmosphere?

    Maybe the capsule pilot was in a hurry andpushed a button too soon????:)

  6. I am so glad they made. But to suffer this old sexism after this 10g landing is pouring salt in the wounds! Shame on those M.C.P.’s!

  7. I, like ceb1947, wonder how this earth plummeting capsule can fall through the 50 miles of earth atmosphere for 3 and a half hours. Lets see, that means it was falling at about 15 mph, about as fast as a feather!
    Seems like more than one persons calculations are a little bit off!

  8. This is the ultimate pitfall of international cooperation. The US may be progressive and fair, but other nations are still underfunded, overextended and untrustworthy. We cannot fool ourselves that they are not.

  9. That three and a half hours must have been the total duration of separation of ISS to landing in Kazhakstan. It takes 90 minutes to orbit the earth, so I’m guessing they made one orbital loop around the Earth before they started their descent.

    Their second pass brought them down into the atmosphere to where the drag adds the extra 30 minutes to give you the three and a half.

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