Soyuz Capsule Hatch Nearly Burned Up and Crew’s Lives Were on a “Razor’s Edge”

Article written: 22 Apr , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

First, Russian space officials tried to cover up the emergency landing of the Soyuz descent capsule on Saturday. Then they blamed the crew for changing their flight plan without communicating with mission control. Compounding the problem, an official cited a bad omen as a contributing factor to the hard landing. Within a couple of days, the truth behind the Soyuz “ballistic re-entry” began to come to light. Today, even more shocking revelations are being reported, including how the escape hatch nearly failed during the uncontrolled, fiery re-entry…

On Sunday, the Universe Today reported on the off-target landing of the Russian Soyuz descent capsule carrying South Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and NASA record breaker (for most time spent in space) American Peggy Whitson back from the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule had landed short of its intended target, 20 minutes behind schedule. The authorities later blamed the mishap on a change in flight plan and suggested the crew were to blame. Then, surprisingly, Federal Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov placed some of the blame on the female dominant crew, saying women on board space missions were bad luck.

Yesterday, I reported on some updates to the drama that had unfolded. Apparently, even before the rescue helicopters had located the capsule, the Russian space agency publicised the crew’s safe return, covering up the fact they had no idea where they were. What’s more, the helicopters had been sent to the wrong location, and it was by chance that the capsule’s parachutes were spotted. The capsule had landed in a zone reserved for emergency touch-downs and the crew suffered a “hard landing”. Not being able to send a signal to mission control, the crew remained upside down, strapped to their seats for 25 minutes. Malenchenko was able to unlatch himself to get outside to use a satellite phone. Some news agencies reported that the parachute had even caught alight and set the surrounding vegetation on fire.

Today, even more revelations have been reported. According to an unnamed Russian space official, the capsule had entered the atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner. Rather than the capsule’s heat shield taking the frictional re-entry burn, the escape hatch became exposed and bore the brunt of the high temperatures outside. The hatch sustained substantial damage. The antenna was also exposed to the heat, completely burning it up, explaining why the crew were unable to communicate with the ground. A valve that equalizes cabin with atmospheric pressure was also damaged.

The fact that the entire crew ended up whole and undamaged is a great success. Everything could have turned out much worse. You could say the situation was on a razor’s edge.” – Anonymous Russian space official involved in the descent investigation.

Russian Federal Space Agency spokesman, Alexander Vorobyov, continued to downplay the series of events saying that antennae were regularly damaged during capsule re-entries. He rated Saturday’s event as a “3”, where “5” on the scale would be critical.

This troubled landing has naturally raised questions about the safety record of the Soyuz capsules currently being used. This is the second time in a row (and the third since 2003) that there have been serious problems during re-entry of Soyuz capsules. The official continued to say that there can be no guarantee that this will not happen again:

Considering that this situation has repeated itself, it is obvious that the technological discipline in preparing space equipment for a flight is declining. There is no guarantee that the crew of a Soyuz spacecraft landing a half a year from now would not face the same difficulties.” – Anonymous Russian space official

During the confusion as to where the Soyuz capsule had landed, there are unconfirmed reports that the U.S. Defence Department tracked the off-target landing and pinpointed its location for Russian helicopters. NASA is reserving comment until the Russian Federal Space Agency finds the cause of the uncontrolled descent.

Investigators suspect that the ballistic re-entry was caused by an electrical short in the cable that connects the crew capsule’s control panel with the Soyuz descent hardware. A short circuit in this cable can automatically trigger the ballistic re-entry mode and there is little the crew could have done to prevent it.

Sources: The Associated Press, New Scientist


21 Responses

  1. Jon Clarke says

    Is this “Universe Today” or a tabloid?

    “Cover up”, “shocking revelations “, anonymous” sources are not phrases I would normally associate with this site, but a witch hunting sensationalist blog with an anti-Russian bias.

    Yes, something did go wrong, but the crew survived, were recovered safely, and the mission was a success. Details will emeerge progressively and the problems will be solved. Until then let’s have less of the senationalism.

    Let’s not forget that Soyuz has an excellent safey record. It has flown 89 missions in 37 years without a fatality.

  2. Vanamonde says

    Mr. Clarke, I personally do not see UT as a tabloid or having a bia against Russia. But after review several other sources, this story does have that tabloid favor as the authorities in Russa hem and haw and spin and and respin.

    Personally, they are starting to sound like my own countries masters, in the afterward of the Katrina disaster.

    But these is spaceflight and relevant to the mission of UT.

    Thank you, UT! Keep up the good work.

    And down with sexism!

  3. Adam says

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know the aerodynamic shape of the Soyuz capsule is such that it should align itself “automatically” the right way on reentry. Is there someone out there who can confirm or deny this? If this is right it would cast doubts on the reports that the escape hatch was in danger of burning through. Just wondering…

  4. Wrap says

    Lets not forget Columbia and Chalenger.. Things were much worse with them. Naturally everybody started to blame everyone.

  5. Member
    kei knewth butler says

    Tabloid, sensationalism, yellow sheet journalism…….

    Get off it!

    1. The Russians, and I’ll bet USofA officials knew tried to cover up a serious and dangerous situation.

    2. The comments about ‘women onboard…’ show them making light of the situation in hopes of covering it up.

    3. The fact that the capsule came down bass-ackwards and did NOT turn the occupants into crispy critters shows the ruggedness of the re-entry capsule.

    4. This ‘don’t tell’ mindset, which Bush practices feeely, shouldn’t surprise anybody.

    5. Let’s locate the cause, fix the problem and get on with it. Cover-up’s cover asses that do not have a tailbone. Information solicits solutions.

  6. pantzov says

    i think you are doing a good job covering this story. it’s unfortunate that there was a malfunction but i am still amazed at how tough that little capsule is. imagine the friction on that hatch and the thing still (just barely) kept its integrity.

  7. Adam says

    Just a little nitpicking @pantzov. It’s not the friction that causes the high temperatures but the compression of the air in front of whatever object is flying through the atmosphere.

    The nerds, please, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerodynamic_heating

    Sorry, I just had to! 🙂

  8. Rich Faulkner says

    Yes, the capsule does right itself on reentry. In a news story I saw last night, the capsule was still attached to the service module upon reentry. It was supposed to be seperated before that time. It was during rentry that the two finally seperated and the capsule righted iteself. But not until after the damage was done to the nose of the scraft.

    The Russians should be more forth-coming and take ownership of the problem. Once that is done, the problems can be solved. It never hurts to say, “it looks like we have a problem here that needs to be solved.”

  9. Adam says

    @ Rich Faulkner
    News story? Can it be trusted? We all know that the reporting in mass media can be fairly inaccurate as far as technical facts go. How much of a deviation from the standard procedure was that, BTW?

  10. Alice Kottmyer says

    What amazes me is this: I haven’t seen any mention of this in any of the mainstream media. The fact that the lives of astronauts, including a US astronaut, were hanging on a “razor’s edge” for awhile seems to be at least as important as the “surgery on the six-legged cat,” which is one of CNN’s current headlines (not that I have anything against his surgery ..)

    Maybe I’m just not looking in the right place.

  11. tontotoo says

    Why should anyone be surprised that this isn’t on the nightly news? I get all my news from the Internet now, the MSM is an antique waste of time.

    Ever see the Today program? Two minutes of news bits, the rest is dedicated to cooking and fashion segments and other stupidity.

  12. The Scott says

    Kei… not just you but you’re the most recent…

    Information solicits nothing but blame. The only thing the public is concerned about is whose fault it is.

    It doesn’t matter if there were no casualties.. public release on CNN of this incident would just bring a whole bunch of know-nothing and care-not people clamoring for someone’s job. Nothing is worse for the space program than the public. It is extremely dangerous to go into space, but every time there is a setback or an accident, the only thing you can hear from the public is how so and so is covering it up or trying to downplay it. Why do they do that?

    Maybe it has something to do with every time there is something to talk about, the large majority of the public, who really know two things about space (one of them is Jack) demand that there are public apologies, a whole bunch of people get fired, and we have fresh debates about whether or not we are actually wasting our money on the space program.

    Personally, I think the actions of the space program should not be influenced by public opinion; after all, I would not ask a manager at Krispy Kreme how to teach a horse to take a saddle. I would not ask a maintenance foreman at Frito Lay how to drift a race car around a curve at 90 mph. Why should I ask 5 billion people whom I already know have no idea what the heck is going on what their opinion is?

  13. Member
    Gerald says

    Scott,
    “Nothing is worse for the space program than the public.” How can you say this? Without the public, there would be no space program. Without the public, there would be no reason for a space program! Do you really see the “space program” as some kind of elitist, private club that the public should pay for but otherwise butt out?

  14. Lawrence McCurrach says

    You shouldnt ask 5 billion people, but you do have to ask 300million of them, seeing as its their money be used in this program.

    Tbh Scott, what you said could have come straight out the mouth of any number of budding authoritarians.

  15. Member

    Thank you Astrofiend, I wholeheartedly agree with all that you’ve said. And you are totally correct – this is a sensational article because it is a sensational story. I’m not anti-Russian either, I’m just stunned by how this whole affair has been handled.

    As a side note if anyone thinks this reporting is hardline, have a read of this: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24243569/ and then compare with what I’ve said…

    Thanks!

    Ian 🙂

  16. Kootstar says

    OK, let’s cool our emotional missles at one another and see what happens next. This has happened, (yes, just like other problems with space missions before it) but the greatest challenge will be to find the true cause and fix that. I can’t do it, but I want to hear about it being done. If we (here on forum!) gripe too much about the writing of the article, no one may want to write about that, and I am anxious to hear (read) about it.

  17. PD Holloway says

    I have to agree with most of the observations by my fellow contributers. Where is the scientific method in your reporting? Shouldn’t the goal be as you yourself have said you would try to adhere to; accuracy. Other than that this is without doubt (with the exception for political points of view) the one place that gives us what we grave so. Astronomy. Best stick to that.

  18. PD Holloway says

    Come on! Let’s stick to science. Conspiracy that, conspiracy this. No one has the whole story yet to accurately report the facts. Filling up this space with that garbage isn’t what most of us like about this site.
    On another note (as others have noted), that vehicle must have been engineered very well to have escaped what could have been years of delay along with loss of life. That is a story in itself. We tend to think of our Russian comrades to be a little behind us but it is apparent that at least in this regard they’ve built something that under those extreme conditions survived while we have not enjoyed the same success since Appolo and the drama that followed that explosive event. So lets leave the junck behind us and just stick to the facts, mame.

  19. Astrofiend (Syd, Aust) says

    “PD Holloway Says:
    April 23rd, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I have to agree with most of the observations by my fellow contributers. Where is the scientific method in your reporting? Shouldn’t the goal be as you yourself have said you would try to adhere to; accuracy. ”

    “Come on! Let’s stick to science. Conspiracy that, conspiracy this. No one has the whole story yet to accurately report the facts. Filling up this space with that garbage isn’t what most of us like about this site.”

    Despite whether you like these types of stories or not, UT does not solely exist to cater to your specific preferences, or even the preferences of the majority. This story is space related, and so is quite within the domain of UT subject matter. Read the stories you’re interested in, and ignore those you are not.

    The article is accused of being sensationalist, but there are a number of extraordinary facts slowly coming to light in this situation. The fact that the Russians denied there was a problem at first then prematurely and publicly blaming the cosmonauts for the problem, an extraordinary comment regarding women mission specialists from a person in a key role at the space agency and a number of other factors are quite rightly outed in the article as being extraordinary for a supposedly highly professional team.

    Yes, it is true we don’t have the full story yet, but the article both states and implies this very fact about ten times. It is a report on an emerging story, so treat it as such. When the tragic Columbia disaster happened, would you expect the news to report the event to you despite initially sketchy information and then fill in the details as they emerged, or wait 3 months until all the facts were in and then report it?

    Jeez…. I’m no anti-Russian – I have a great respect for their accomplishments in space both contemporary and historic. But the actions of the Russian space agency in this instance have been quite incredible and worthy of being reported in the news.

  20. Brad says

    Clearly there needs to be some guidance and official policy for the Russians so that they don’t shoot their mouths off until the facts are established. This includes cover-ups, misleading information and pure superstitious gibberish. Sometimes no news is good news boys.

  21. ChucK Cooper says

    This problem with the Soyuz has happened before, BTW James Oberg is a recognized expert on the Russia//USSR space program:

    http://www.jamesoberg.com/soyuzsecret.html

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