Aiming for Arkalyk
Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, September 1998
(Page 2 of 6)
With the news Glazkov left in an atmospheric huff and was gone for two hours. After “titanic efforts,” he explained on his return, he had managed to cadge a landing slot at Karaganda, a heavy industrial center an hour east of Kustanai. “At least we know a hotel there,” enthused Igor Rudyayev, the cosmonaut training center’s PR man for the journey. “Sometimes we have to sleep in the plane.”
By noon the next day, just three hours before the cosmonauts were due to land, Kustanai finally gave arrival clearance, and our airplane revved toward the Karaganda runway for takeoff. Ex-Soviet friendship broke down again at this point, though. Airport officials boarded the craft demanding a $400 landing fee. Glazkov let forth a predictable stream of barracks Russian, but after an hour of dickering he paid up.
So it goes when your landing site is 1,100 miles from home, located in what is now, but didn’t used to be, another country.
The drama of American spaceflight, at least to those watching the Apollo moon landings on TV, was always packed into the launch, with its pillars of fire and taut voiceover from mission control. Astronauts’ return to Earth was a happy-ending anticlimax. On splashdown days the ocean always seemed calm and sun-speckled, the Navy’s recovery ships (we never used the word “rescue”) an easy distance from the reentry capsule.
The Soviet Union, however, had no tropical coast. The Caspian Sea is not far, in Soviet terms, from the Baikonur launch facility, and is at roughly the same latitude. But the Caspian is a stormy, temperamental body of water, densely packed with fishing boats. So landing gear and procedures had to be designed for land.
The target zone selected was near the town of Arkalyk, about 150 miles north of Baikonur. Yuri Gagarin and others who soloed in the early-1960s Vostok vehicle simply ejected on the way down, returning to Earth like paratroopers who happened to take the pilot’s seat with them. But when the Soviet designers switched to the Soyuz design in the mid-‘60s, hoping to beat Apollo to the moon, they added a reentry capsule with room for three cosmonauts.
Steppe has less give in it than ocean. So along with parachutes to slow the capsule’s descent through the atmosphere, Soyuz engineers added four retrorockets, which ignite just above the ground like a fiery set of brakes. Even with specially molded, spring-backed seats to cushion the impact, cosmonauts get a jolt on landing similar to a skydiver’s, except that they’re strapped in their chairs and have nowhere to roll. They take it all in the back and kidneys.
After that jarring landing, they needed to be found and brought back. Which is why a team of experienced rescuers arrived in Kustanai ahead of us to work out the details of who should go retrieve the Soyuz crew and how. Normally, Russia’s Federal Search and Rescue Service sends three Mil Mi-8 helicopters to do the job, one for each cosmonaut. Normally they have a 30- to 40-minute flight from Arkalyk. But today is not normal, and they’ll be flying out of Kustanai, two hours away. Rescue service officials decide to send only one helicopter (deep-sixing our own plan to tag along with the rescue party). There is only one pilot the officials trust to fly blind through the storm, then find a small spaceship somewhere within a 25-mile-diameter circle. His name is Anatoly Mikhalishev.