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April 22, 2008

Moscow, we have a problem...

Posted: 04:37 PM ET

Actually, neither Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko nor Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson uttered those words as their spacecraft plunged through the atmosphere toward a rougher-than-expected landing in Kazakhstan last weekend.

Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson arrives at Chkalovsky airport, Star City along with Flight Engineer and Soyuz Commander Yuri Malenchenko and South Korean space tourist So-yeon Yi. They returned to Earth on April 19, 2008 to complete 192 days in space for Whitson and Malenchenko and 11 days in orbit for Yi. Source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

But details are beginning to trickle out suggesting they DID have several problems, though exactly what went wrong and how serious it was is still unclear. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier held a teleconference with reporters Tuesday afternoon to share what he does know about the incident.

Malenchenko, Whitson and South Korean space tourist So-yeon Yi were returning to Earth from the International Space Station on Saturday when some sort of malfunction triggered a so-called "ballistic" re-entry scenario. The spacecraft re-entered at a much steeper angle than planned, bringing it down a couple hundred miles short of its target landing zone near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The crew members inside were subjected to far more extreme G forces than normal during the drop through the atmosphere – approximately eight 8 G's for up to two minutes. There were Russian media reports of 10.5 to 11 G's at peak, but Gerstenmaier was unable to confirm that.

There is some evidence to suggest that one or more pyrotechnic bolts that hold the crew cabin to the instrumentation/propulsion section didn't "blow" as designed at the appropriate point in the descent. Those two sections need to separate so that the crew cabin's heat shield is properly oriented during the hottest, most fiery parts of atmospheric reentry. Crew members reported abnormal levels of buffeting and jostling during decent, and there are anecdotal reports by people who saw the spacecraft on the ground that it was more singed than usual. The hypothetical worst case scenario in this case would be that the unshielded parts of the Soyuz would be exposed to searing hot temperatures for too long and they could burn through. This obviously didn't happen, and there is no evidence so far to suggest it was even close. But after a breached heat shield brought down the shuttle Columbia back in 2003, NASA is very aware of the potential for disaster.

Yuri Malenchenko smelled smoke in the cockpit near the end of the flight, shortly after the parachutes deployed. He switched off the display panel for a time, and the burning smell went away.

Russian mission control was out of contact with the spacecraft for a significant period of time, and communications were not reestablished until after the crew climbed out of the downed spacecraft and Malenchenko called in on a satellite phone. There is more anecdotal evidence suggesting the communications antenna burned off during the descent, though Gerstenmaier was keeping an open mind as to whether or not there could be other explanations for the loss of comm.

And making the whole situation even more worrisome: this is the second time in a row that some of these anomalies have happened. The ballistic reentry and the crew cabin separation problem both occurred last fall when the Expedition 15 cosmonauts returned to Earth. An investigation fingered a shorted out cable as the culprit in the ballistic reentry. Malenchenko and Whitson inspected that cable in their Soyuz prior to deorbiting, and it appeared fine.

ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency, is appointing a commission to investigate what when wrong with this latest landing, and how it relates it to the Expedition 15 malfunctions. Gerstenmaier says NASA has full confidence that the Russians grasp the seriousness of getting to the root cause of what's going on.

But this is clearly another headache for the folks at NASA, who will be relying on the Soyuz to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station for years to come, especially after the space shuttle fleet is retired at the end of 2010.

The next astronaut slated to fly aboard a Soyuz is Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke, in the fall of this year. NASA hopes to hear the results of the Russian investigation in a few months, and decide by August or September if the problem has been diagnosed and fixed.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: International Space Station • NASA • Space • Space Tourism

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spacebuff   April 22nd, 2008 6:07 pm ET

The Soyuz spacecraft is FAR MORE reliable than the best amereican spacecraft....leave them be... afterall THEY INVENTED MANNED FLIGHT. they know more, they have done more, and they continue to do more with less.

It is American stupidity to think that a few extra G's during a decent is something to be alarmed over.

You fogrot the most important part of a landing:
'Any landing you can walk away from is a GOOD LANDING'.

Andrew   April 22nd, 2008 7:43 pm ET

Uh, you may want to check whether you should be referring to Yi So-yeon as a space tourist – as I understand it, she's a fully-fledged astronaut who was conducting experiments in space on the South Korean Government's time. She's officially a guest of the Russian's, but she's as much an astronaut as any other that has flown on another country's spacecraft.

Steve   April 22nd, 2008 8:11 pm ET

Yeah...I'm pretty sure Russia did not invent manned flight...

Brian   April 22nd, 2008 9:28 pm ET

A Russian, Yuri Gagarin, was the first man in space. You could reasonably say they "invented" it the same way other things are invented. For example, you might be working on a prototype, but if someone finishes a working final before you, they get credit for the invention.

And yes, Yi So-yeon is South Korea's first astronaut, not a tourist. Get it together CNN.

JR   April 22nd, 2008 10:44 pm ET

Yeah, I think that it was Icarus.

Jeremy   April 22nd, 2008 11:28 pm ET

To echo Andrew's comment, So-yeon Yi was certainly not a "tourist" any more so than any of the other astronauts on board. From another CNN article posted before the flight ( "She was among 36,000 applicants for the job in a 2006 nationwide competition, and plans to conduct 18 scientific experiments during her nine days on the space station."

TJ   April 22nd, 2008 11:34 pm ET

8.5 Gs is more than "a few extra Gs." That is a significant g-load. The fact of the matter is that no matter how reliable the spacecraft, re-entry is a dangerous moment and all caution needs to be taken to make sure that it is consistently safe.

This may also provide lessons to NASA regarding Orion, since it will have to unlatch from a service module, like Soyuz. As it is a space capsule, would it be using a similar re-entry angle to Soyuz as opposed to the shuttle?   April 23rd, 2008 12:39 am ET

Russians were the first to orbit a man, first to put a woman in space, first to spacewalk, first to do a lot of things. I give them credit, as do the folks at NASA for their incredible achievements and prowess in manned spaceflight. I hope we can take some queues from them as far as "just getting it done," rather than analyze things to death.

That being said, any landing that you can walk away from is not necessarily a good landing. There was the Gemini capsule we Americans had that sunk and almost drowned an American astronaut Gus Grissom. And before the challenger blew up, as shuttles SRB gaskets burned almost completely through from a problem that eventually doomed challenger.

The Russians are right to have a serious investigation, and NASA is right to expect them to. The reason that we need to not use the Soyuz capsules is because they are more expensive than our home grown SpaceX and Orbital Sciences solutions that can improve jobs and technology at home while making space more accessible.   April 23rd, 2008 1:56 am ET

So-yeon Yi is not a space tourist, please get your facts straight CNN!

As for the Soyuz, it has the best performance rating of any manned space craft in history.

The Russians have identified that there is a problem, they are taking the steps to correct it. Lets cut down on the sensationalism and wait for the hard facts.

More importantly to note: There was a problem and the backup systems worked!

The ballistic entry is not a problem with the Soyuz, it is the backup automated landing mode for when something goes wrong. The backups worked correctly, and the astronauts/cosmonauts landed safely.

Dexter   April 23rd, 2008 4:14 am ET

@ spacebuff
Russia undoubtedly as a much worse track record regarding the safety of people. This is not only true for spaceflight, but it seems to be an overall thing in Russian society. (remember the way they handled the Kursk drama, their national airfleet Aeroflot, the "rescue" from the people kept hostage in the Moscow theater etc etc.)

Hopefully the research commission will quickly find out what went wrong here.

Kendall   April 23rd, 2008 7:14 am ET

There was a time in America when we would have never placed ourselves in the position of having to depend on another country to fulfill our interests in space. While I agree with the comments about the safety record of the Soyuz over time, I still find it shameful that we've allowed ourselves to be placed in this position. NASA needs to be adequately funded–it's in the national interest.

Joe   April 23rd, 2008 9:46 am ET

I will toss out that the Chinese "Invented" manned flight when they used large kites to lift people into the air many centuries ago. Feel free to flame on about what constitutes flight. And I'm a big fan of stuff and folks getting shot into space, regardless of where they launch from. I'm an even bigger fan of when the folks step out of their container safe back on earth. Get 'er fixed and keep lighting the candle, I don't think they will use the metric of body count to decide it's maybe time to look at the problem. Stupidity is the most powerful force on earth, and NASA and the Russians have employed their share, but they will git' er done.

Space Junky   April 23rd, 2008 10:40 am ET

Not wanting to nitpick, but Grissoms's capsule was a Project Mercury capsule. Agree with the comment that it's pathetic to even be in this situation in the first place. And by the way, why does Sen. Obama think that further delays in the Constellation Program is such a good idea?

Space enthusiast   April 23rd, 2008 2:19 pm ET

I'm not surprised about this accident; the technology of those Soyuz spacecraft is old, not to mention the hardware itself; and the Russians are not really stellar when it comes to safety procedures (that's one of the reason they were the first in so many space adventures: they didn't really do much risk analysis); the sooner that the Soyuz can be replaced with something that is newer but still safety tested, the better. I don't really trust them in their monitoring or reporting of what happened; the confusing reports of what actually happened as reported above is clear evidence; in fact because this blog is the only place I've seen that has reported this problem is more evidence of not either being forthright about it or that there is not rigorous monitoring of the craft's performance to be able to report on. I'm really glad that the European supply craft, Jules Verne, will be taking over some of the flights of the Russian Progress craft, because it is pretty old too. And in general, many Russians, are what I were term, just slimy people; apparently they have even have a gun stashed secretly aboard their section of the space station; typical! Not the kind of folks I would trust very much as "partners" in such a dangerous and important mission as space exploration. I'm glad they are doing a serious investigation about this incident, but it will be interesting to see if what NASA finds will be the same as what the Russians find; I wouldn't be surprised if the Russian report glosses over the problems. I hope someday, I will trust them more, but as long as leaders like Putin are (still) running the country (more like an autocracy) and there is so much corrupted business dealings going on over there, I sure wouldn't want to travel on any Russian spacecraft!

Franko   April 25th, 2008 4:48 am ET

Freeman Dyson, on Charlie Rose, referred to the Space Station as "wefare"

However, there may be more to it than minimal science or exploration.

David   April 25th, 2008 6:28 pm ET

For all the complaints about Soyuz being technologically archaic, the Soyuz reentry module is as straightforward as a sledgehammer, and as reliable. It's aerodynamically stable and heat-shielded up the wazoo, so that if anything goes wrong you can drop like a rock and still survive! (Try that in a spaceplane.) I'm geeky enough to appreciate elegant high-tech contraptions, but sometimes you just need a brick. Reentry is one of those times.

Frank Mondana   April 25th, 2008 8:03 pm ET

Enough with the misplaced patriotism. On both sides. The Cold War is over. The original Space Race relied on spying and stealing, plain and simple. Both "super-powers" would have never done anything without shady tactics.

Let's not forget, the US "genius" behind the rockets was a former SS Colonel who was "forgiven" his crimes because of his knowledge. Research what the US "let slide" at the end of WW2 to get hold of him. There were many former 3rd Reich people hung for less severe crimes. This guy became stupid rich.

Despite what Governments and Popular Science say, spaceflight is complicated and requires many resources. The more countries involved the better.

After Columbia, the Russian space program is what kept the ISS moving forward. Russia ferried personnel and supplies back and forth while we recovered.

While we here in the US love the Shuttle (despite what I'm about to say, I love the engineering of the craft), it has not lived up to the original specs for cost/performance. It is an expensive toy.

The cost per flight is so high that the "reusable" part fell by the wayside.
The Challenger tragedy took the shuttle out of the Satellite business (for the most part). Most of these are now placed using old fashioned rockets. The plan of using it to bring back broken equipment and re-inserting later stopped as well.
It does do well for the ISS missions but that's about all the shuttle does now.

As an engineer, the space program is exciting. It needs to be about the science, not flag waving. The calender no longer reads 1969.

Larry Fugate   April 26th, 2008 8:06 am ET


Grissom's Mercury Liberty Bell 7 sank when the pyrotecnic charges used to open the hatch in an emergency malfunctioned and blew the hatch off prematurely.

Several cosmonauts have died due to malfunctions in the Soyuz spacecraft during reentry.

SpaceX and other such programs are private enterprises and not ready for orbit nor are they man-rated (yet).

Putin is the elected leader of Russia. They are not a democratic society like us, so don't judge them as if they were.

The Russians keep a pistol in the emergency kit of the Soyuz for cosmonauts to use for hunting and protection in case they land somewhere unexpected and can't be reached quickly. The do NOT have any such thing aboard the space station itself. The recoil from a shot in weightlessness would do more harm to the shooter than the target, plus the bullet would penetrate the hull and cause decompession, possibly killing everyone aboard.

As for reliability, you have to consider the number of total flights in relationship to the failures. People say the shuttle is dangerous because of disasters like Challenger and Columbia, but out of all of the shuttle's missions, the disasters are a very small percentage. There have been even more Soyuz flights and the results are the same. Check your math before you open your mouth or turn on your PC!

Robert Showers   April 28th, 2008 3:25 pm ET

I think I'm in love with a girl from kieve, I want to marry her as a catholic ,what do my fellow astronaughts think of this and world peace,I am sorry the eye is on al quida and not us

Franko   May 3rd, 2008 5:56 am ET

Communists can also claim first death in space;

Russian may have learned a lot after.

jerry a. Myers   May 8th, 2008 1:49 am ET

THE high cost of space material, robotics, space shuttle parts ,
super computers and software, one would think the low cost of mathematical simulation of flights would detect minor to
major potential problems. BUT the supremacy of mathematical
simulation of lift-off to re-entry is an Russia and NASA major problem. IT is too bad they ignore it, like a storm warning.

Franko   May 9th, 2008 2:19 am ET

. .
All the super computers using wrong equations have not predicted climate well
Do you think that space projects are simple enough,
Or just design, trial and error is more cost effective ?

Russians did their best, but lost numerous astronauts

Small in number compared to those sacrificed to keep the price of oil low.

INTER NET FREE PRESS   May 9th, 2008 11:13 pm ET


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