Aiming for Arkalyk
Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, September 1998
(Page 3 of 6)
With him he takes a 10-member crew headed by the training center’s chief physician, Oleg Fyodorov. Three of the 10 will not come back, at least not immediately. They have to yield their places to the cosmonauts, then wait in the thin cover of the vacated space capsule until a back-up chopper gets through to pick them up. The rescuers are not particularly fazed, though. This is the same A-team that puts cosmonauts (and a few lucky American astronauts) through three-day survival training at Tiksi on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. In the off-season they test how long trainees can last in the Turkmenistan desert with two liters of water. Let Mikhalishev find the spacecraft; they’ll stay out as long as they need to.
Russian mission control, which goes by the acronym TsUP, has been directing this spaceflight from back in Moscow for the entire six months that Solovyev and Vinogradov have been in orbit. Yet once the Soyuz splits from Mir and begins plummeting to Earth, the brain trust at TsUP can do little but cross their fingers. Voice contact ceases due to ionization of the surrounding air as the capsule falls at terrifying speed from 186-mile-high orbit to an altitude of only six miles in about 20 minutes. (French cosmonaut Eyharts reported later that he found the plunge “particularly exciting.”) For TsUP controllers, who know that death can lurk beyond that wall of silence, it remains a trial.
At 31,000 feet, the altitude of commercial jet flights, the first two in a sequence of four braking parachutes pop open. By 24,000 feet the Soyuz has slowed enough to open its main parachute, a behemoth that when fully unfurled covers 10,000 square feet—almost half the area of a football field. TsUP can hear the cosmonauts again during this phase of descent. But responsibility for tracking them, by ancient bureaucratic custom, passes to rescue service controllers in Kazakhstan. On calm days, their radar locates the capsule fairly accurately. But when high winds are buffeting the capsule during its parachute descent, as they are today, the radar had trouble holding the track. The Mi-8 pilot must then use his own wits and eyesight.
Mikhalishev had the Soyuz capsule on his helicopter’s onboard radar until about 13,000 feet, then lost the signal. He was guided now only by squawks on the radio from mission commander Solovyev. Tolya is a proven quantity, returning from his fifth mission on Mir, where a month earlier he celebrated his 50th birthday. He has right stuff beyond question, having seen more open cosmos than any other Earth inhabitant over the course of seven spacewalks totaling some 60 hours. On the other hand, he has always taken landings hard, emerging from the capsule doubled over by motion sickness.
During the last few moments of descent Mikhalishev strained to make visual contact and timed his own landing to coincide with touchdown of the spacecraft. Suddenly the Mi-8 had landed in the deep snow, with the Soyuz capsule right next to it. How it happened none of the rest of the crew could say. “All I could see was frost covering the window,” Fyodorov recalled later. “Visibility was nil. This was just the art of the pilot, a very experienced pilot.”
After half a year on Mir and more than three hours in their womb-like reentry vehicle, alighting cosmonauts generally welcome a little fresh Earth air, no matter how chilly. Service etiquette dictates that when rescuers pop the hatch, the returning space traveler’s first words be “Vsyo normalno”—everything’s fine. Also de rigueur is an attempt to climb down the ladder from the hatchway unaided. Thanks to Mir’s three-hour daily exercise regime, many cosmonauts do return I surprisingly good shape. The legendary example is Anatoly Artsebarsky, who after a six-month mission in 1991 remained standing through an interminable reception in his honor back in Arkalyk.
After this show of grit, cosmonauts are ushered into folding chairs where, weather permitting, they whip off their space helmets and enjoy the Kazakh breeze. Doctors take pulses and blood pressure, and the reentrants are offered tea. Sometimes they hold impromptu press conferences.
Meanwhile rescuers are blowing up a small inflatable field hospital, complete with an operating theater, which is ready within ten minutes of touchdown. The cosmonauts are brought into the heated interior and removed from their spacesuits. Clothes sweated through during the high-temperature reentry also are changed. Next follows an EKG, blood tests, and a rigorous hour-long physical. A surgical team stands by, but its services have never been needed.