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Hatch of Soyuz capsule nearly burned up; crew was in serious danger

Hatch of Soyuz capsule nearly burned up; crew was in serious danger

The crew of the Soyuz capsule that landed in Kazakhstan hundreds of kilometers (miles) off-target after an unexpectedly severe descent was in serious danger, a Russian news agency reported.
Interfax quoted an unidentified space official Tuesday as saying that the capsule entered the atmosphere improperly, with the hatch-first, instead of with its heat shields leading the way. As a result, the hatch suffered significant damage.
The official said the TMA-11 capsule's antenna burned up during the descent, meaning the crew couldn't communicate properly with Russian Mission Control. Also damaged was part of the valve that equalizes pressure inside and outside the capsule.
Interfax said the official was involved in the investigation into Saturday's landing.
The Soyuz crew included South Korea's first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko.
"The fact that the entire crew ended up whole and undamaged is a great success. Everything could have turned out much worse," the official was quoted as saying. "You could say the situation was on a razor's edge."
NASA associate administrator for space operations William H. Gerstenmaier said the U.S. space agency was not aware of any danger for the crew although it did not ask if the crew was at risk.
"I don't see this as a major problem," Gerstenmaier told a Tuesday news teleconference in NASA's first comments about the landing. "But it's clearly something that should not have occurred."
Alexander Vorobyov, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Space Agency, confirmed that the descent had problems, saying that the Soyuz hatch and the antenna did suffer partial burn damage, but said that was a common occurrence when the capsules re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.
He said investigators looking into Saturday's landing had classified it as a "3" on the 5-point scale of seriousness, where "5" would be a critical level. Russian officials were still investigating what went wrong, he said.
The crew, which was returning from the international space station, endured severe gravitational forces because the craft took a steeper-than-usual re-entry, called a "ballistic trajectory." The capsule ended up landing some 420 kilometers, or 260 miles, off-target and 20 minutes late.
On Monday, Yi told a news conference at the Star City cosmonaut training center outside of Moscow that she was frightened by the descent.
"At first I was really scared because it looked really, really hot and I thought we could burn," she told reporters.
The incident was the second time in a row _ and the third since 2003 _ that a Soyuz landing had gone awry. The space official quoted by Interfax said that signaled problems with the Russian space program.
"Considering that this situation has repeated itself, it is obvious that the technological discipline in preparing space equipment for a flight is declining," the official was quoted as saying. "There is no guarantee that the crew of a Soyuz spacecraft landing a half a year from now would not face the same difficulties."
The Russians thought they had solved the descent problem after it cropped up last October and NASA agreed with their original analysis that a frayed wire was to blame, Gerstenmaier said.
However, the ship that landed Saturday was inspected in orbit and did not have frayed wiring, he said, acknowledging that the original investigation went wrong.
"We may have missed the probable cause," Gerstenmaier said.
Still, NASA is satisfied with the way Russia is handling the mishap and has not asked to be part of the investigation, he said.
"I have complete confidence in what the Russians are doing. They were very concerned about this," he said. "They treated this with the same diligence as we would in the United States."
But when NASA officials testify about the international space station on Thursday they will be grilled about the incident.
"I'm obviously concerned anytime a human space flight mission doesn't go as planned. We need to get more information about what happened and why, as well as what will be done to keep it from happening again," said House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat.
Interfax quoted another unnamed official with the Baikonur cosmodrome _ the launch site in Kazakhstan for all Russia's manned missions _ as saying that the U.S. Defense Department tracked the Soyuz's off-target landing and pinpointed its location for Russian searchers.
Gerstenmaier, who was at Moscow Mission Control when the Soyuz landed off-course in Kazakhstan, relayed a little bit about what happened. After the landing, it took a half hour before Soyuz flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko called Moscow on a satellite phone to say they were OK. But no one was worried because it often takes an entire hour for this to occur, he said.
Malenchenko "detected some smoke in the cabin," Gerstenmaier said. Then the NASA official added that it was "maybe not smoke, but actually the smell of burning materials" and that is not uncommon.
The crew was subjected to gravity forces of about eight times Earth's gravity for up to two minutes, he said. Normal Soyuz returns have G-forces of about five, NASA said.
They felt "a kind of general jostling in their seats that they have not felt before," Gerstenmaier said.
The single-use Soyuz and Progress vehicles have long been the workhorses of the space station program, regularly shuttling people and cargo to the orbiting outpost.
They took on greater importance after the grounding of the U.S. space shuttle fleet in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster.
The NASA official emphasized how reliable Soyuz ships have been. It serves as the emergency escape ship for the international space station and will be NASA's only mode of space transport for several years after the 2010 scheduled retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet.
"We need not to overreact to this," Gerstenmaier said.
Associated Press Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Washington.

Updated : 2022-01-17 15:21 GMT+08:00