Spacemen 'fortunate' with off-target landing

It could have been a lot worse for the two Americans and one Russian whose landing ended up nearly 500 kilometres off course and their recovery hours late.

In 1976, a Soyuz spacecraft came down in a freezing squall and splashed into a lake; the crew spent the night bobbing in the capsule.

Eleven years before that, two cosmonauts overshot their touchdown site by 2 000 kilometres and found themselves deep in a forest with hungry wolves. That’s when

Russian space officials decided to pack a sawed-off shotgun aboard every spacecraft.

Astronaut Kenneth Bowersox said with a smile that he didn’t need the gun in the Kazakh steppes where he landed on Sunday: “There was nothing out there but grass and us.”

On Monday, Russian space experts met to discuss what went wrong with the Soyuz capsule carrying Bowersox, astronaut Donald Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin back from the international space station. The spacecraft was a new model that had never gone through a re-entry before.

“I’ll call it an interesting test flight experience,” said Bowersox, a Navy captain and former test pilot, several hours after touchdown.

It was the first time Nasa astronauts had returned to Earth in a foreign spacecraft and to a foreign land.
The switch from a shuttle to Soyuz landing came after the Columbia disaster in February, which resulted in the indefinite grounding of the entire shuttle fleet.

Following a meeting on Monday with his Russian counterpart Yuri Koptev, Nasa Administrator Sean O’Keefe said he wants the next space station supply run to include a Global Positioning System satellite receiver and some type of phone. That way, if the Soyuz that brings the two space station occupants back in October goes

off course, they can pinpoint and report their whereabouts.

“It was very, very worrisome,” said O’Keefe. He said he feared the worst during the two hours that the Soyuz was missing, especially coming just three months after Columbia’s destruction during atmospheric re-entry.

Inside the Soyuz, the cockpit computer displays abruptly switched from a normal re-entry to a ballistic one just minutes before touchdown, and the three men knew they were in for a considerably steeper and rougher ride than usual. They came in

short of their targeted landing site, and two hours passed before recovery forces spotted them. It was another two hours before helicopters arrived, and yet another two before Nasa personnel reached the scene.

Bowersox, who commanded the five-and-a-half month space station mission, said he and his crewmates enjoyed having some time to get their land legs back and savour nature.

“It was the most beautiful dirt I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Bowersox said he thought the crew had notified Russian Mission Control about the computer indications for a ballistic entry, but couldn’t be sure. It’s also possible communication was lost at that point, he said.

The last call received from the Soyuz was to confirm that the main parachutes had deployed 16 minutes before touchdown. The antennas were smashed after the capsule smacked down and was dragged 12 metres by the parachutes.

“We thought everybody should know” where the Soyuz landed, Bowersox said. “Obviously, we know so everybody else should know,” he joked.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, who overshot his splashdown point in the Atlantic by 400 kilometres in 1962.

Carpenter fell behind in his orbital work and, while rushing to catch up, made a series of mistakes that led to the off-course landing. Nasa knew where he was because of radar, but the flight director made sure Carpenter never flew in space again. - Sapa-AP

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