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The recovery crew arrived five hours after the Soyuz landed. (Don Pettit)

If I Were to Land on Mars...

A small malfunction lands three astronauts on Russia’s version of the Red Planet.

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.

Perhaps the best way to describe what we felt like is to say what we did not feel. We did not feel pain when we moved. And we did not lack strength. In orbit we had worked out for two hours a day, both cardiovascular and weightlifting exercises. We had the lean, muscled look of healthy people, not the atrophied bodies of those who had made the first long-duration spaceflights.

Our limbs felt heavy because our brains were not yet compensating for their weight. Like a lab scale that subtracts the weight of a beaker to measure only its contents, an Earth dweller’s brain accounts for the weight of the limbs. In orbit, we had lost this function, and it would take about 10 hours to regain it. Before exiting the Soyuz, each time I reached out to cycle a switch the trajectory of my hand would start off low, forcing me to hoist my arm to reach the correct spot on the instrument panel. Returning a tennis serve would have been more difficult.

Motion was unpleasant, a nuisance, provocative. Any head movement made my vestibular system complain bitterly. Of the three of us, I struggled with the worst symptoms, which is not uncommon for a rookie. Apparently, the body remembers the trials of past spaceflights, making each additional return easier.

When our post-landing chores were done, we chose to bask in the sun. It felt good to lie on my back and commune with Mother Earth. The sky was a most wonderful blue. The smell of freshly ground earth and crushed spring grass from our Soyuz’s tumble filled our noses. A sparrow’s song greeted our ears. A breeze touched our faces. The three of us propped our heads on our pile of survival equipment as if it were a giant communal pillow. Our bodies radiated outward like a three-spoke wheel.

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