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Aiming for Arkalyk

Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.

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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.

This is how it happens usually.  But today is not much of a day for sipping tea or pitching tents.  Three stretchers on the helicopter floor will have to do.  Mikhalishev keeps the blades churning while Fyodorov’s team rushes through pared-down physicals.  Half an hour later, they’re in the air, headed back toward civilization.

Meanwhile, in Kustanai, it’s time for lunch.  Herve Stevenin, the French space official, looks forlornly at a sophisticated incubator he’d hoped to take to the landing site to hold six salamanders who’ve been busily laying eggs on board Mir.  He fears the reptiles will freeze before he sees them again.  Glazkov and his Star City back-benchers have long ago drifted despondently from the runway, their own hopes of reaching the landing site dashed.

Yet certain courtesies must be observed.  The political elite of Kustanai—a featureless cinderblock settlement of 300,000 people thrown up, like nearly everything else in northern Kazakhstan, to exploit a nearby metals seam—have turned out in their finery.  A Jeep Cherokee awaits the most important Moscow visitors; a sharp new touring bus will transport the lower-downs, like doctors and journalists.  The pasty official toast-mastering the less exclusive banquet is the picture of provincial ex-Soviet sleaze, and is obsessed with the idea of touring the local chocolate factory.  But after four or five vodkas and a steaming bowl of borscht, he kind of grows on everybody.

The drama and danger of space landing start to recede from our thoughts.  Yet some Russian space veterans can recall past disasters only too well.  Between 1967 and 1976 Soyuz spacecraft experienced five serious accidents.  Four of them involved failures during reentry or landing.  Two were fatal.

Disaster struck on the very first Soyuz flight—April 23, 1967—and old-timers still curse the apparatchiks for it.  The record strongly suggests that the new vehicle was not ready for flight.  That was what the U.S. intelligence concluded, based on the mistaken premise that the Soyuz had undergone four test launches.  In fact there had been only three.

But 1967 was the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, and the Party wanted something to boast about on May Day.  So Vladimir Komarov was sent up for a three-day mission.  Trouble began when one of the vehicle’s solar arrays failed to open.  Several key systems failed for lack of power, including the one that navigated the reentry.  Komarov managed to find the right trajectory manually and landed on target.  But rescuers found his ship on fire, with onlookers from the nearby village of Karabatuk frantically throwing dirt on it.  Komarov’s charred bones were later found inside, along with a main parachute that had failed to open.

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