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Aiming for Arkalyk

Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.

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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.

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.

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