Soyuz Hard Landing: The Facts

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: McClatchy
, Orlando Sentinel

24 Replies to “Soyuz Hard Landing: The Facts”

  1. Gerstenmaier said in his hearing today that one way that they knew that the last flight didn’t separate is because they received telemetry from a cable that was supposed to be severed. He said the the problem could be due to a manufacturing change.

  2. Ian……,

    No need to defend yourself… Really… One thing I know about Russians is that you have to understand what they are saying…. Not what they are ‘saying’..(speaking)…. I lived in Russia for four years (my current wife, for 11 years, is Russian)…. I understand.. They normally tell you the truth, they really do… But sometimes you have to stop focusing on the words and look at the face (the eyes).. They tell you that way.. They speak to you with their expressions.. And they expect you to know…. They do.. They may know the deal, but they are still proud people.
    For the people that have criticized you for seeming to be anti-Russian, I say they are wrong.
    The Russians are not even close to us as being technologically sophisticated. We are the race horse, they are the mule… and they take more chances with their technology that they have. They are desperate to outdo (us)…. It’s a pride thing.
    The Russians are in fact a good thing for the progress of our species… They give us ‘drive’, and our reciprocity does the same. It seems that politics is (and has) contributed to our evolution.
    Keep going Ian…. Well… Except for that “Solar Sail” thing… 🙂

  3. To Roger:
    It’s still a newsworthy event though, and a great advert for just how robust and versatile Soyuz is. Given the choice, I’d do re-entry in Soyuz than the Shuttle, I *think* the odds are better overall (you might have to check that). It comes down to simplicity in the design. Even if it falls like a stone, completely uncontrolled, Soyuz will right itself automatically, it’s physically impossible for the capsule to fall upside down. So long as the heat shield is good and the parachutes work (which they obviously do), then great!

    This was more than a cover up though, it was media bait. Immediately everyone knew something was wrong, but officials said all sorts of lies to cover up the “embarrassment”. When the Shuttle picks up damage and expensive repairs are made in space, NASA turns the bad situation into a media event. NASA news is at the other end of the spectrum – regardless about space mishaps, technological errors or miscalculations, they tend to take full responsibility and put a positive spin on events. Sometimes it can be a bit too much spin, but at least we know they’re not blatantly lying.

    Ian over and out! 😀

  4. Ho. Ho. As I poorly spelled the other day, this smells of Shrub & Poo-Tin spreaqding FUD to mask the truth while they find out what the truth actually is.
    The Russian capsule is rugged. So are the people aqnd the plans of those people.

    However, the ones up front don’t always know where those people will push them,

    1. find the cause
    2. determine a solution
    3. fix the problem

    Seems to me that’s what they’re doing.

    BTW, I did not see anywhere in any press about UT smearing the space program of either nation. Wonder who smeared that up in the first place!

  5. To Dennis: Yes, I had to check those images again, I thought the star on the helicopters was used in the Soviet era. But then again, it probably didn’t warrent a symbol change when the regime changed… interesting history there. Also, I did mean scuppered, it can be used as a term for “put in a difficult position”. Might be an old British word come to think of it…

    And thank you Greg and Marcellus! 😀

    Cheers, Ian

  6. I agree with Al. I’ve lived in Russia for seven years and I can tell you they would be prepared to go very far to promote their country or, if need be, cover up any embarrassing facts. The technicians they’ve got are beyond doubt every bit as competent and skillful as their counterparts in NASA or ESA. But, and this is a big “but”, the bureaucratic and social structures have changed very little if in fact at all since the bad old soviet days. This is the soul reason for all the weirdness that’s been going on. The top brass have it in their blood to deny everything that would put the system in bad light. They’ve been brought up this way and they’ve been doing this all their lives. Unfortunately it’s going to take some (considerable) time before that changes.

  7. As I said before a multi-continental space agency pooling its budget is the only way to effectively resolve any issues we are currently experiencing.

  8. I must say that the initial reporting appeared to be not exactly pro Russian. All of us have had problems with technical malfunctions etc. The Russian contribution to the world space effort is essential and often the straightforward way is the best. Not too sure how a 5 year gap in the US provision was allowed to happen. However we must support our Russian friends and in the correct way. I note they have adopted one Health & Safety tip, a fence of plastic tape!!

  9. When the Shuttle has a serious problem it kills everyone on board.When the Soyuz has a big problem it lands 200 miles miles short and the people on board experience 8Gs.BFD. And are our politicians cover up everything they can and lie to the world also

  10. Statments about women being bad luck, and blaming the crew before there was any evidence at all to support the claim is worrying.

    Had someone at NASA made claims like that, there would be public outrage, and that person would be forced to resign.

    There is no doubt that the Soyuz is a tough machine, and it works. It just worries me when the old Soviet propaganda machine gets in the way of the truth.

  11. I didn’t know that Russian aircraft still used the red star symbol…..would have thought it would have been replaced with Commonwealth colors by now……BTW, in reference to the comment about how the international community is counting on the use of the TM-14 to support the space station and without them “plans for space would be scuppered”, I think you mean “scuttled”……..and I agree with you!

  12. Universe Today is a levelheaded and welcome addition to my inbox every time. Your coverage is great and I do not share others’ belief that you have a bias in your reporting. Please keep up the good work, this NASA Alumni appreciates all you do.

  13. I have read the above personal accounts of the Russian People. An interesting bit of information that I read is concerning the Vikings!
    If you think about it, what happened to the Vikings?
    they were a strong and adventuresome society, so, where are they?
    Turns out, they still exist today and they are Russian!

  14. OMG, space travel is dangerous? I never knew. Of course I hope they locate what went wrong and fix it without it being a witch hunt.
    Until there is a vehicle that can operate with 100% safety there will always be risk (747s still crash sometimes) Still safer than crossing the road, and coming down form low earth orbit is still a pretty dangerous thing to do.

  15. for those of you that noticed the red stars on the helicopters:

    vladimir putin reintroduced the red star onto military vehicles a few years ago.
    he also brought back the old soviet anthem, but now with new lyrics.

  16. 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.

  17. 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…………

  18. 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.

  19. 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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