If I Were to Land on Mars...
A small malfunction lands three astronauts on Russia’s version of the Red Planet.
- By Don Pettit
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
(Page 2 of 4)
Seconds later our warning panel lit up with a master caution that displayed the Cyrillic letters for “BC.” It meant we were entering the atmosphere in a “balistiki spusck,” switching irreversibly from a piloted course to a ballistic, or unguided, one. This was the first entry flight of a Soyuz with an upgraded cockpit, and it was malfunctioning. We were coming in with no more grace than a cannon ball.
One of the nasty little side effects of a ballistic entry is that your G level climbs to more than twice that of a normal entry. So instead of experiencing 3 to 3.5 Gs, we were grunting under peak loadings above 8 Gs, after having lived for almost half a year in the zero G of space. In my spacesuit I weighed about 1,700 pounds. These gravitational swings can be rough on the body. But humans have demonstrated throughout time that their physiology is robust and can operate under extremes. If as a species we were not so capable, all that would remain of Homo sapiens might be a thin fossil layer eroding from some Ethiopian hillside.
Following the high-G entry came the parachute opening sequence, with its carnival-ride oscillations. The chute is attached to the capsule by a single cable, and when it unfurls, the action causes the capsule to gyrate wildly. After a few short moments that seemed much longer than reality, the gyrations settled down. We were just starting to experience smooth sailing when our spacecraft made one last hurrah, a jolt as if we were in a boat that had just run aground. This was the re-hook system, which fires pyrotechnic charges to change the parachute attachment from a single point to a more stable four-point riser. From then on our ride was smooth.
Except when we hit the ground. The Soyuz is notorious for hard landings. To dampen the blow, a series of small rockets beneath the vehicle fired a few feet before impact. The Russians call them “soft landing rockets.” Long-stroke shock absorbers beneath our couches reduced the blow to something like a rear-end collision in rush hour traffic. After tumbling end over end a few times in another of those longer-than-reality moments, our capsule stopped on its side about 100 feet from the point of impact, having plowed enough dirt to create a small flower garden.
Because of the physics of a ballistic entry, you land almost 300 miles short of the target. After the chute had opened, we shared a brief radio dispatch with a search-and-rescue aircraft, so its crew knew that we were okay. But they lost contact before we could explain that our entry had been ballistic.
Once below their radio horizon, we were out of range.
No one at Russian mission control knew where we were. The landing personnel waited for us at the planned site, and we had rudely failed to show up.
Where we did land, there were no ground support personnel to help us, and it would be hours before they came. We opened the hatch and crawled out. I felt like some gossamer sea creature that melts when removed from the ocean. The sudden presence of gravity turned me into an amoeba, and I oozed out of the capsule.