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Soyuz Capsule Lands on Earth

Aired May 3, 2003 - 22:02   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Any moment now, as we mentioned, a Russian Soyuz capsule carrying two astronauts and one cosmonaut from the International Space Station is expected to touch down in Kazakhstan. Now it's significant for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it's going to be the first re-entry from space since the shuttle Columbia disaster.
CNN's space correspondent Miles O'Brien is standing by with more -- Miles?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, we just got an update. Four minutes now to the landing of the Soyuz capsule, containing the three member crew. The sixth expedition or full-time crew to the International Space Station returning not at all in the way they anticipated, and also sometime after they anticipated.

Let's take a look at the crew. As you look at these live pictures of the place they call Soup just outside of Moscow, a place called Korolev Mission Control, their version of Houston, if you will, where controllers there are watching very carefully. And they have confirmed to us that the parachutes have opened on that Soyuz capsule.

This is more akin to the old Apollo returns, the splashdowns that we witnessed in the '60s and '70s. Take a look at the crew on board. Upper left hand portion of your screen is the commander, Nicolai Budarin, veteran cosmonaut. To his right, the space station commander, NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox. And the lower portion of your screen, Don Pettit, the science officer on the International Space Station.

This is the first human return from space since Columbia February 1 when the crew perished, of course, over Texas on return. Let's take a look at the farewell that occurred just about six hours ago on board the International Space Station. This is in the destiny science lab, the scientific heart and soul of the space station.

As the three person crew headed down, shook hands, and bade farewell to the two people who will remain there. Ed Lu is an NASA astronaut. Yuri Malenchenko, a Russian cosmonaut. A two person crew has been left on board to conserve supplies during this period of time when the shuttle fleet is grounded, thus limiting the amount of things which can be brought to and from the space station.

The undocking occurred as it was supposed to, about three hours ago. take a look at some pictures as we are about 90 seconds away from that landing. This is the shot they use actually to help guide them away carefully. You see the crosshairs in the middle of the screen there, which allows the pilot to have a firm indication of exactly where they are as they pull from the International Space Station.

Let me just show you briefly how this Soyuz re-entry operates. We of course are more familiar with the way a shuttle comes back to earth. There are actually three pieces to it. You see the de-orbit burn actually occurring right there. The two pieces that come off are the orbital pod and the instrumentation pod. And then the re-entry pod remains, as it comes into the earth, just like any spacecraft returning from space, develops a tremendous amount of heat. Plasma envelopes it. Down they come, using the heat shield to protect them from that searing heat of re-entry.

In this case, what happens, parachutes deploy and it lands on the steps of Kazakhstan. Let me show you exactly where they're headed. There's a red dot on this globe here. And I will zoom in for you, using our technology and give you a sense of precisely where they're headed, about 51 degrees north, 67 degrees west. And they're about 30 seconds now away from their landing point, right there in the middle of nowhere, quite frankly.

Soyuz landings, difficult to capture on tape because they happen in the middle of nowhere. But we have seen the immediate aftermath. And usually what happens is helicopters come. They open the hatch. And the crew is sort of carried out of the capsule.

They've been up in space for six months. And so, they will be treated gingerly. Each of them has their own helicopter, their own medical team waiting for them. Of course being astronauts, they don't want to really be carried. They want to walk off if they can.

We're now 25 seconds to the touchdown. Let's go back to that live mission control picture. We won't see any pictures of the touchdown live. We'll get some tape a little bit later, but let's listen to the commentator. Kyle Herring of NASA is providing commenting for us. Let's listen.

KYLE HERRING, NASA: We're now 15 seconds from the scheduled touchdown. Again, we will confirm the touchdown just as soon as that information is passed along.

O'BRIEN: NASA's public affairs officer Kyle Herring giving us an update, looking at telemetries directly from this place you see right here, the place they call Soup, a Russian acronym for mission control just outside of Moscow in a place call Kroya (ph).

Just as the Soyuz is just about to hit the ground, a series of retro rockets fired in order to try to cushion the blow as it strikes the ground. Of course you recall the Apollo and Gemini and Mercury capsules of the Space Race in the United States splashed down in the ocean.

The Russians never did that for -- because their entire program was shrouded in such secrecy. And thus, they always returned to the deserts of Kazakhstan. And this retro rocket firing is a part of that whole package to cushion the blow.

The ride back on the Soyuz is a little more harrowing than a space shuttle ride.

HERRING: Again, the scheduled landing time, 9:07 p.m. Central time. And we're standing by for ground forces to provide confirmation of the Soyuz landing. And we will pass that along just as soon as it's made available to us here in Mission Control.

O'BRIEN: The crew members are sitting in reclined positions as they come down. And they can feel as much as 7.5 Gs, which means 7.5 times the weight of their body. It's a tremendous number of Gs, but it is something that when they're in a recline position, is relatively easy to withstand, we're told.

Now just to give you a -- for the sake of comparison, space shuttle crew...

HERRING: This is Mission Control Houston. And we do have confirmation of touchdown, although not visual, we do have audio confirmation that ground forces have made contact with the crew. The Soyuz Expedition 6 safely on the ground, completing 162 days in space for the Expedition 6 crew. 5.5 months in space.

O'BRIEN: Kyle Herring of NASA telling all of us what we wanted to hear on this evening...

HERRING: The four helicopters...

O'BRIEN: ...that the Soyuz capsule is down safely. The steps of Kazakhstan, the three person crew, are well and on the ground. And we'll, of course, monitor as they approach the capsule and open the hatches. And we'll give you an update as to their status, but it's nice to have a landing go that way, isn't it, Anderson?

COOPER: Yes, it certainly is, Miles. It's great to see. Two men remain as you said back on board the International Space Station. What is their mission? How long are they going to be up there?

O'BRIEN: Well, they're due to stay up there for at least six months, Anderson. And quite frankly, their mission is to keep the lights on. It's glorified housesitting. Maintaining the presence is what this has a lot to do with. With two people on board, there's precious little science that they can accomplish, which is after all the goal of the space station, but no one is offering up any idea that they can do a lot of science. The idea is to keep it running.

COOPER: And if they need to get off that thing, do they have a Soyuz capsule as well or?

O'BRIEN: Yes, they leapfrog the Soyuz. In other words, they left up there the new Soyuz. This group came down in the old Soyuz. They have a six month shelf life on orbit because after a little while, their propulsion system, the peroxide in their propulsion system dissipates and becomes not certified for flight. And that's why they have to swap them out every six months. So they come up with a new one, leave the new one there, and come down in the old one.

COOPER: All right, Miles O'Brien, thanks very much for being here. Appreciate you joining us.


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