If It Had Been a Space Shuttle, It Would Have Landed in
With Saturday's successful landing of the Russian Soyuz (a
"successful landing" being one you don't need to sweep up)
off-target by some 300 miles, the first step, after finding and
recovering the crew, is to figure out what happened.
NASA figures that an error of the magnitude
demonstrated this weekend should be easy to fix... once it's
Although being back on Earth, any way they could get here,
certainly beats being stuck 250 miles up in the ISS while the
Shuttle fleet is dissected, the prospect of coming down in the
really, really wrong place isn't too appealing, either; and there
were plenty of "worse places" for the Expedition 6 crew to have
landed, within that 300-mile radius of where they should have
landed. (Schools; hospitals; big, deep bodies of water; crowded
buildings; perhaps a volcano...)
What happened was fairly easy to see: the Soyuz is designed to
have its CG asymmetrically located, so that it can hold a position
relative to the relative wind of re-entry. With increasing air drag
providing about 5Gs of braking power, the descent into the upper
atmosphere needs to be just about right -- and
Computer seems to have had a bout of forgetfulness...
On re-entry, the computer automatically went into
a backup mode. That signaled to the three aboard that the
"autopilot" controls didn't know where they were, or at least how
the ship was oriented.
When astronaut Ken Bowersox noticed the reset, he said, "...our
eyes got very wide." The backup, not knowing where to start, merely
sets up a stronger descent, and landing targets immediately become
long-ago dreams. The new mode of operation consists of making sure
people on the ground know where the landing is going to be.
That's why, when radio contact was lost during re-entry, the
crew and the ground were both really scared. They knew the capsule
wouldn't be landing where it should; but they had only an
approximate idea of where it would land.
The first reaction sounded like a replay of a bad Cold
War movie: the Russians blamed the Americans for pushing
the wrong button. The crew -- all three of them -- knew the
predicament they were in, and had the good sense not to touch
The capsule ended up on its side, the retro-rockets and
parachutes having done their jobs.
The three voyagers clambered out of the capsule and were spotted
by a search plane, after about two hours. A few hours later, the
first rescue helicopter arrived. Don Petit was carried aboard; the
other two men walked under their own power, happy that they were in
one piece, and that the Cold War is truly over.