Station crew OK after Soyuz capsule lands short of target
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: April 19, 2008
Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko and South Korean guest cosmonaut So-Yeon Yi undocked from the international space station and returned to Earth around 4:30 a.m. EDT to close out a successful 192-day mission. Because of an unexplained problem of some sort, the Soyuz capsule came down well short of its intended touchdown site just north of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, unseen and out of immediate contact with recovery forces. But within the hour, recovery teams were on the scene and the crew was reported to be in good condition.
"Recovery forces, at least two helicopters, are in route," reported NASA commentator John Ira Petty, monitoring the descent from mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "There are indications the spacecraft could have landed well short of that targeted site. One possibility that has been raised is that of a ballistic entry. That could have occasioned such a shortfall. Again, no indication that anything is amiss with the spacecraft."
A few moments later, Petty reported acquisition of the Soyuz capsule's landing beacon and Russian flight controllers told the space station's crew Whitson and company had landed 295 miles west of the intended landing site.
"Station, Moscow, on SG-1 for landing," a flight controller called from Moscow.
"Go ahead. I'm all ears," said station commander Sergei Volkov.
"Sergei, the latest information from the search and rescue, Yuri contacted them using the satellite phone and you can hear applause in the control room. They are feeling fine. They are short of the landing zone by 475 kilometers."
"Why so much?" Volkov asked.
"Well, they'll figure it out," mission control replied. "It looks like a ballistic descent."
NASA spokesman Rob Navias, with Russian recovery forces in Arkalyk, said the crew was in "good shape." Chief astronaut Steve Lindsey said the steeper-than-normal descent was reminiscent of the Expedition 6 landing in May 2003 and a similar shortfall during the most recent previous landing.
"We didn't hear from them for a while so we were concerned," Lindsey said. "But eventually we did get word that they located them so that's real good news. ... They were well ready for this and in fact, Yuri did call in on the sat phone after they landed just to let the rescue forces who didn't see them come down, to let them know the crew is OK."
At a Russian news conference, Russian officials said the crew was in good health after a "controlled, ballistic descent. The crew feels great, all of them. ... The reasons for the ballistic descent will be investigated after the descent module will be delivered to the Energia Corporation."
Whitson now holds the U.S. endurance record with a cumulative 377 days in space during two station expeditions. She broke the previous U.S. mark of 374 days on Wednesday, eclipsing a record set by astronaut Mike Foale. Whitson now ranks 20th in the world for space endurance and 16th on the list of most experienced spacewalkers. She carried out one spacewalk during her first flight in 2002 and five during Expedition 16 for a total of 39 hours and 46 minutes.
Malenchenko, completing his fourth space flight, moves up to ninth on the space endurance list with 515 days aloft.
"I'd love to fly again, especially if we were going somewhere like the moon or Mars," Whitson told CBS Radio in an interview Wednesday. "I would actually be happy to come here and fly on the station again. It's a very long training flow and that's, I think, the hardest thing to overcome, getting my arms around the idea of going through another training flow. Because additional international partners means it's a lot of travel and it's a very long flow, usually three to five years."
But Whitson said she had no regrets, and enjoyed her first six-month flight in 2002 as much as her second.
"I had a phenomenal time the first time around," Whitson said. "There is only one first time, there's a lot more discovery that happened on the first trip, being up here, and I think time felt like it flew by, literally. I mean, it felt like I was here on my first trip about two months when I was here six. And on this trip, I would say six months seemed about like six months and so, it's a little more expeditionary this time around. But if you're not having a good time, I guess you're just not doing the right thing because we have a blast up here."
Whitson, Malenchenko and Yi undocked from the downward-facing port of the Russian Zarya module at 1:06:30 a.m., leaving Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov, flight engineer Oleg Kononenko and NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman behind aboard the international lab complex. Volkov, Kononenko and Yi, South Korea's first space flier, were launched April 8 aboard the Soyuz TMA-12 spacecraft that remains docked to the station's Pirs airlock module. Reisman, ferried to the station aboard the shuttle Endeavour in March, plans to return to Earth aboard shuttle Discovery in early June.
With Malenchenko at the controls, assisted by Whitson in the left seat, the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft fired its braking rockets at 3:40 a.m. for about four-and-a-half minutes, slowing the craft enough to plunge back into the atmosphere. Three minutes before atmospheric entry around 4:06 a.m., the descent module carrying the crew separated from the craft's orbit and propulsion modules.
Seven minutes later, the returning station fliers experienced maximum deceleration followed by the command to open the craft's parachutes beginning around 4:15 a.m. Ground controllers, however, did not establish contact with the capsule until after landing.
During Expedition 16, Whitson, Malenchenko and rotating crew members Clay Anderson, Dan Tani, European Space Agency astronaut Leopold Eyharts and Reisman oversaw a major growth spurt in station construction with the addition of the Harmony connecting module, the European Columbus research lab, a Japanese logistics module and the relocation of a huge set of solar arrays.
When the arrays were re-extended, torn blankets and seams caused a major concern. But the problem was resolved when a spacewalking shuttle astronaut successfully stitched the torn blankets together.
"Some of my proudest moments of this mission have been how we've handled the problems that have come up," Whitson said. "Fixing the solar arrays, the team on the ground really, really pushed hard to come up with a solution to fix that solar array and I was very worried about it, because I knew that we wouldn't be able to add additional modules without that power capability. I was really, really proud of our teams on the ground, proud of the team up here that made it happen."
Asked what she was looking forward to the most back on Earth, besides reunions with friends and family, Whitson said "I'm excited about having a little bit more selection in food and being able to actually cook something instead of eating something out of a bag. And I'm also looking forward, I really like working in my garden and planting flowers. It's the right time of year in Houston to be doing that, so I'm looking forward to doing that, get a little extra rehab in that way."
Whitson's first trip to and from the station was aboard a space shuttle. This time around, she rode the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft into orbit and will make the trip back to Earth flying in the left seat, assisting Malenchenko.
"I'm the left-seat flight engineer and it's very involved, it's more involved than I ever would have been, for instance, on a shuttle mission," she told CBS News last year. "I was pretty impressed with the training program, that they're able to teach a biochemist in Russian how to be a left-seat engineer. So it was very challenging for me, but I think it's going to be very satisfying because of the challenge."
Before her launch last October, Whitson said she did not view herself as a role model. But she said she hoped her story might encourage other women to pursue careers in science and engineering.
"I want to encourage any child to do their best at anything," she said. "Coming from a background, rural Iowa, raised with more hogs than people, I don't know that I knew all the choices out there. But something struck me about exploration of the moon, and I hope that even if I don't inspire somebody to be an astronaut that I inspire them to be an engineer or to do something more than they thought they could. That would be very important to me."
During a brief change-of-command ceremony Thursday, Whitson formally handed over the station to Volkov.
"I'm officially handing over the international space station to Sergei Volkov," she said. "I'm very happy to do so. Expedition 16 has consisted of a lot of crew members, some who are here, some who are not - Clay Anderson, Dan Tani, Leo Eyharts, Yuri and Garrett and myself - and we've had the really great privilege and honor to be here on the station when so much has changed. We feel like we have handed over a very beautiful station to you guys and look forward to your work. I know that you're going to be a great commander, Sergei."
"Thank you very much," replied Volkov, son of a Russian cosmonaut. "Expedition 17 takes the station under our control and thank you very much for such a precious station, a beautiful station, and we wish you have a safe trip back home and good luck."
Whitson then jokingly offered Volkov and Kononenko two parting gifts, the first one being Reisman.
"He's going to be a great addition to your crew," Whitson laughed. "And the second gift, which is almost as important as Garrett, is the left over (hot) sauce!"
"Thank you! Thank you ver much!" Volkov said.
"You're in control now," Whitson said. "You have the sauce."