New Facts Emerge from Soyuz Emergency Landing

The facts behind the “ballistic re-entry” of the Soyuz descent capsule are beginning to come to light. According to several news sources, after the capsule made an unusual steep descent through the atmosphere, putting it at least 400km off-target, the parachute was set alight causing a small bush fire on landing. The crew, who had to wait upside down, reported smoke inside the capsule. Although the Russian space agency overseeing the rescue helicopters reported that the crew were safely on the ground, in reality they were struggling to find their location. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko had to unhook himself from the askew craft, get outside and use a satellite phone to confirm they were alive and well. Tough questions are now being asked as to why mission control lost track of the capsule in the first place and why they covered up the reality of the landing till so long after the event…

As previously reported on the Universe Today, something went wrong with the Soyuz descent capsule as it completed its return mission from the International Space Station on Saturday. Back then, the Russian space authority reported the capsule had undergone a ballistic re-entry (rather than the planned “guided descent”) after the crew changed the flight plan without communicating the alteration to mission control. This was the sole (official) reason given for the hard landing the three crew members suffered. South Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and American Peggy Whitson endured forces exceeding nine-G (nine-times Earth gravity) as they tumbled through the atmosphere.

One Russian space official cited an old naval superstition that having women on board the flight was a “bad omen” and that planners would reconsider having a female-dominant crew in the future. These remarks understandably caused a stir.

According to one news source, it is more likely that the capsule’s autopilot failed, causing the ballistic re-entry. On the ground, Russian officials guessed that the capsule had overshot the landing zone and sent rescue helicopters to a location far east. By chance a helicopter in the west (a location reserved for emergency landings) reported seeing the parachutes of the capsule, but no contact was made with the crew until 30 minutes after landing. Way before contact was made (via satellite phone), the Russian space agency had been publicising the safe return of the Soyuz crew to divert attention from the problems they were having.

Perhaps the most worrying report is that the descent parachute caught fire and burnt surrounding vegetation. Apparently smoke even got into the capsule. This would have undoubtedly caused a lot of stress to the crew.

In a recent interview with South Korea’s first astronaut Yi So-yeon, the 29 year-old bioengineer remembered her ordeal and admitted she was “really scared” as the capsule began its emergency re-entry:

During descent I saw some kind of fire outside as we were going through the atmosphere. At first I was really scared because it looked really, really hot and I thought we could burn.” – Yi So-yeon

The shaken crew members were still shaken as they gave a press conference on Monday. Malenchenko remained adamant that none of the crew were to blame for the ballistic re-entry. “There was no action of the crew that led to this,” he said. “Time will tell what went wrong.

This incident highlights the risk involved with space travel, and whilst access to space is becoming more and more routine, the fact remains that things can go wrong. Many news sources are highly critical of the Russian space agency, arguing that they are incompetent. This might be a little strong, but in matters such as the safe return of astronauts, absolute clarity is needed. Attempts to cover up technical faults, citing of “bad omens” and misinformation will not help the Russian efforts in space.

Sources: AP, MSNBC, Yahoo!,

23 Replies to “New Facts Emerge from Soyuz Emergency Landing”

  1. Going on a Witch hunt would be damaging to the future collaboration of Space Agencies all over the world. I hope investigators remain fixed on resolving problems and spend no time trying to pin the blame on individuals.

  2. @BR: it’s a rather robust basket, and IMHO this incident shows it again. even having something like a backup plan is worth a lot.

  3. I think it’s funny that you guys all laughing at that “old naval superstition” thing.

    The superstitions are part of their culture, is it not?

    Why do people protest for culture preservation and then laugh at the Russian traditions at the same time?

  4. What worries me, is that this will be the only manned orbital spacecraft in the world after 2010. All our eggs in one very fragile basket, methinks.

  5. “Although the Russian space agency overseeing the rescue helicopters reported that the crew were safely on the ground, in reality they were struggling to find their location. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko had to unhook himself from the askew craft, get outside and use a satellite phone to confirm they were alive and well.”

    Good old Russian dodgy-ness. They get the job done in space, but by goodness they can be dodgy about it. This incident reminds me of the early Soviet manned space flights, where I think it was three times in a row that re-entering (Vostok? Vokshod?) capsules spun out of control until landing.

    And smoke in the capsule!? That doesn’t exactly give you confidence of its air-tightness, does it?

  6. No, it is not, the article said “old navel superstition” it is commen among most navies world wide. Good heavens where have you been? Have you never heard on old movies or read a book where it was stated that having a women on board is bad luck? What was the problem is that Russia has been in the forfront of putting women in space, at one time a Russion woman was in space for a longer time than any American astronaught, that is why the comment was a little silly as it contradicted the “cultural precedent” Russia set early on the space program by utilizing women in a equal manner. The thing is, that probably many Russians were dismayed by such a statement. The point the article was trying to make is that the polit bureau in Russia still hides problems from the rest of the world, and initially tried to place the blame on the returning astronaughts instead of admitting that something could be wrong with their science.

  7. I agree with Miguel – by far the most shocking thing for me, wasn’t the fact that the capsule made and emergency landing (after all accidents do happen!), it was the fact that the Russian authorities doggedly covered up the incident and put their spin on the events. Compounding the problem is all this talk about superstitions etc. Hell, I’m superstitious and I would have problems with boarding a spaceship with “13” in its name, but I would never place the blame of a space accident on the shoulders of the female crew members.

    Yes, there are a lot of traditions and yes, there are plenty of cultural superstitions, but blaming the hard landing on Yi So-yeon and Peggy Whitson just because they are women is a little disheartening. I think this was made worse by the fact it was an official who made this public statement – gives the impression that the agency has the same mindset (when it was probably his own personal opinion in the first place)…

    We’ll see if more news surfaces!

    Cheers, Ian

  8. Thanks for the insights, as I was running into brick walls trying to pry information from my sources for a report for Lunar Networks. This and a few subsequent reports are helping put the pieces together.

    This is what I managed to put together for a smaller audience earlier:

    The Soyuz TMA spacecraft has proven to be an amazingly dependable support vehicle, first for MIR and now for ISS. Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, plans to replace the vehicle soon, and if NASA’s solidifying status quo timeline is upheld through the winds of politics until the Constellation’s Orion Block One and Ares I booster is available, the United States will be depending on some version of the Soyuz for a half decade.

    The advent of ESA’s ATV and American commercial ISS servicing spacecraft will help, but lingering questions Roscosmos and a respectful NASA seem reticent to discuss should be answered. Sources in the Astronaut Corp agree, though they also confirm NASA’s hierarchy agrees also, and are committed to allowing the Russians to clear up an embarrassing third and second in a row failure of the primary hyperbolic re-entry burn on a Soyuz TMA that had been parked for half a year docked and powered down on the International Space Station.

    The back-up secondary re-entry system kicks-in a second or so after the primary system’s failure is confirmed, and those few seconds take the vehicle kilometers further along it’s path, widening the available angle of atmospheric contact needed to bring the Soyuz down anywhere near the desired landing site. The re-entry that follows is “shallow” and hotter, it is also hairy with two command officers carrying a rookie through many gees rather than a few, after months of weightlessness.

    Still, before silence fell over the re-entry’s story, Roscosmos was either mistranslated or translated correctly when quoted as saying that “the crew” (meaning Malenchenko) “made a decision,” a conscious choice to return to Earth in the most dangerous way available, presumably for the thrill?

    If you are wondering why Malenchenko would make such a decision, you can count on that decision being necessary and spontaneous. Soyuz is not built for long-term independent space travel and is not equipped with much more fuel when lined up for re-entry than a Mercury capsule. At the high inclination of the ISS orbital plain, the window for re-entry was unlikely to be as precise for many hours or days, and having just enough fuel to slow the spacecraft and change periapsis slightly below 60 kilometers and the atmosphere left nothing close to what might be needed for changing the plain for its orbit more favorably, or the kind of waive off regularly experienced by the Shuttle may not be possible for the Soyuz design.

    The failure has brought a design flaw to light that may or may not be intrenzic to Soyuz being parked at ISS for six months, or aging parts used to assembly “new” TMA’s – but perhaps more importantly it has shown the fragility of the Soyuz in the context of its robust mission experience but minimalist design.

    The Space Shuttle would not have survived a similar re-entry protocol, but the decades-old design also keeps fuel that is dumped after the OMS re-entry burn, available for slight changes in its future orbital plain should they be needed for a true and modern “orbital re-entry,” and a kind of protocol that allows days to pass before it must return, and to to a wider range of options available for lower latitude landings.

    Whether such questions are foolish, or whether they are finally being tossed about behind closed doors or Emailed to contractors and heeded as a red-flag warning in need of answers, at NASA for Orion or Roscosmos for the next Soyuz remains to be seen.

  9. @BR: Have you fagotten about past space flight fatality statistics?
    I think they more than clearly state wich is the most fragile basket nowdays…

  10. Getting back to the women on ships superstition… if you think back when ships were at sea for several years at a time… all those men and a woman out in the middle of nowhere… yeah that could have caused complications!

  11. Back in the “age of sail” women were often times out to sea with men. Heck the term “son of a gun” comes it has been said comes from women having childbirth on the deck next to the guns!

  12. I think that the most worrying thing, are the attempts to cover the problems rather that the security of astronauts or problems in the spacecraft itself. Specially if there is a foreign crew involved.

    Astronauts know the risks involved in space flights. Anyone knows that going outside is complicated. The Soyuz has shown that is a very reliable spacecraft, albeit its very old design.

  13. This “blog” sounds highly accusatory. A livable landing is a good landing. Ian, I don’t mean to be mean, but you sound biased against the Russians. While I agree that lies in the Russian press are disappointing, It has no bearing on the safety of the astronauts.

  14. The Russians have a history of lying about things. From submarine incidents, to other cosmonaut accidents to colds for their leaders, I thing I remember Chernoylbl being explained as a earthquake or some such for a few days until the truth made its way out.
    Unfortunately, because of the way things are, we HAVE to attach ourselves to other nations space programs in order to keep our man program going.
    As nice and newage as that sounds, it can become dangerous and risky when compromises that we would never do internally are made because we have no other choice but to agree in order to continue the greater mission.
    We have always had news cameras and an open program. NASA has been a transparent program from the beginning, and continues to be.
    I wonder where the program would be if it had maintained the pct of budget it had in the 60’s. Would we have had Apollo-Soyuz? Would we be as close to the Russians as we are now? Would it have been done in neccessity or under the umbrella of greater humanity glory?
    Make no mistake, I think Apollo-Soyuz was absolutely magnificent and I assume was covered by TASS and exposed the USA to the Russian populace as a cooperative people. It was the beginning of the end for the USSR IMO.
    You must take what they say in context of their history. They’ve NEVER had an open society. Its always been filled with secrets and cloak and dagger stuff.
    Hopefully this will bring about more of an open and honest exchange of facts and not automatically jumping to the old ways just to calm, placate, or divert any blame.

  15. Space flight is dangerous. Spacecraft can always be improved. And this was horrible news. Still, I am impressed that the crew was able to walk away, especially after reading the spacecraft was disorient so parts is it without a heat shield were exposed to the fires of reentry – including the hatch! That is probably how smoke got inside!

    I hope it never happens again but I would not mind travel to the ISS and returned by Soyuz, because inspite of the finger-pointing and the spin that is going around now, I am so sure it will be a long time before anything like this happens again!

  16. Actually, I think all the crew performed very professionally and Malenchenko was probably understandably shaken by the whole experience (hence why he didn’t want to talk to reporters). It’s looking more and more like a technical failure anyway and the crew couldn’t influence the capsule’s descent.


  17. The Russians got one thing bang on in their spin, ‘our people are alive, thats all that matters’ .

    Still though in future we all could benefit from the exact facts.

    The more we learn from each other, the easyer access to space will be for us all.

  18. The made it back alive mission success …. no need to say anything against the russians !

  19. Great analysis by Joel Rauche, hopefully he is right that is was a necessary, if last minute decision. But if you watched the arrival of the Soyuz at the ISS, Malenchenko seemed extremely distracted and ignored many repeated directions, seeming almost irrational, watch it again. Only Yi-Seon was cool and focused in her communications. These cosmonauts seem to be acting like cowboys. Either they are given way too much leeway, or this grizzled veteran is suffering from repeated stress syndrome. The Russkies probably have no concept of regular psych testing, so from the evidence, I would say Malenchenko may be losing his marbles. I pity the poor ladies, it is these men who are bad luck.

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