Rivulets streamed across my window, breaking up into a chain of droplets like the streamers of rain on an airplane’s window during a landing approach. Only these rivulets, red-orange hot, were driven by a Mach 25 breeze. Our Russian Soyuz capsule had pierced the veil-thin region of Earth’s upper atmosphere at almost five miles per second, and was shedding sparks and bits of molten metal.
From This Story
Many times I have marveled at the fiery trails of meteor showers that leave a glow in the night sky. Most of us have. We stop, wide-eyed, to observe the fleeting streaks. Sometimes we make a wish.
This time, we were the meteor. And yes, I for one was making a wish.
Our mission, in addition to having the glitches that seem to dog every spaceflight, was unintentionally becoming a test run for a trip to and a landing on Mars: a weightless journey of many months in space, followed by a high-speed entry into a planet’s atmosphere, a sporty parachute deployment, a hard landing in the middle of a remote region, and no outside help for hours afterward. We would learn that our research on the International Space Station is already helping us prepare for the day humans land on Mars.
A few hours earlier I had been aboard the station with commander Kenneth Bowersox and flight engineer Nikolai Budarin, my crewmates on Expedition 6. We had blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard space shuttle Endeavour on November 23, 2002. This day, May 3, 2003, the three of us unknowingly prepared while orbiting Earth for a landing on Mars.
It had been a mission full of sudden turns. Three months before Endeavour’s planned launch, NASA had removed one of the prime crew members for medical reasons. As his backup I found myself propelled into orbit long before my scheduled position in line. Then, on February 1, 2003, the Columbia disaster grounded the shuttle fleet, and our mission was extended from three and a half months to five and a half months. An astronaut colleague had told me before my flight that one should never venture into space without being mentally prepared to remain there for a year. His advice was half right.
We were returning in a Soyuz vehicle that had been docked to the station throughout our stay. We bid farewell to our Expedition 7 replacement crew before closing the hatch and strapping into our seats. The three of us were bound up like hapless flies in a seat belt web. We undocked, burned our de-orbit engine, and waited to enter the atmosphere. Then came the rat-a-tat-tat of pyrotechnic charges, like a ball-peen hammer pounding on the hull, which dissected the spacecraft into three pieces. With a slight lurch, we discarded two spent modules like empty soda bottles tossed out along the Route 66 of space.
Ken looked out his window and saw the propulsion module burning up as designed. I looked out my window and viewed the orbital module ablaze with incandescence. They resembled chunky filaments inside a light bulb. We marveled at the scene, unaware that these bits of disintegrating spacecraft shouldn’t appear within our field of view. Unknown to us, our reaction control system had failed, allowing the capsule to yaw out of the correct entry attitude.
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.