There was an elephant in the room, and it was sitting on their chests. For astronauts Yuri Malenchenko of Russia, Peggy Whitson of the United States, and Yi So-yeon of South Korea, that’s about how it felt on Saturday, April 19, 2008, as the trio endured more than eight Gs during reentry from orbit. At 25 times the speed of sound, their Soyuz capsule plowed bluntly into the upper reaches of the atmosphere like a stone into water. The air pushed back, slowing the vehicle and pressing the occupants steadily harder into their seats. Meanwhile, air molecules scraped across the exterior of the Soyuz and heated it to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
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The math is simple: This kind of deceleration crushes a 200-pound man—turned with his back to Earth—enough to make him feel like 1,600 pounds; a 125-pound woman would feel like half a ton.
It’s not supposed to get this extreme. But for the second time in a row, a Soyuz spacecraft suffered a major reentry glitch, the cause still undetermined. Early indicators point toward explosive bolts that may have failed to disengage the lower propulsion module from the central crew capsule before reentry. It’s possible that the ship began to enter the atmosphere in a dangerous orientation, because the astronauts reported a violent buffeting. Eventually, the stubborn segment broke away, freeing the descent module to right itself. By then, the hatch and an antenna had been severely baked; Malenchenko later reported smoke inside the capsule.
The Soyuz ended up on a trajectory that scientists and engineers call ballistic, or unguided. It fell more steeply to Earth, accounting for the higher G load on the astronauts.
“I saw 8.2 Gs on the meter, and it was pretty dramatic,” said Whitson shortly after her return. “Gravity’s not really my friend right now, and 8 Gs was especially not my friend.”
The Soyuz landed almost 300 miles short of its intended target. Locals helped the astronauts out of their spaceship, while Russian space agency personnel showed up 45 minutes later.
Hardly a smooth return. NASA has deferred to its Russian partners as they investigate the charred Soyuz for clues as to why it stumbled at the start of its fall. With the space shuttle program ending in 2010, Soyuz will become the only means of human transport to the space station until NASA begins flying the Orion crew exploration vehicle in 2015.
Whitson, the station’s first female commander, now has more time in space than any other U.S. astronaut. Her 377 days over two space station tours edges Mike Foale’s 374 days over six spaceflight missions.
Photographers from NASA and the press were on hand in Kazakhstan as ground teams located the Soyuz, flew to retrieve the crew, and brought them back to Moscow. For a collection of their on-the-scene photos, see the gallery at right.