Spaceflight Now Home

Spaceflight Now +

Subscribe to Spaceflight Now Plus for access to our extensive video collections!
How do I sign up?
Video archive

Discovery to VAB

For its STS-124 mission, shuttle Discovery was transferred from its hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building for attachment to a fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters.

 Transfer | Hoist

Complex 40 toppling

The Complex 40 mobile service tower at Cape Canaveral's former Titan rocket launch pad was toppled using explosives on April 27.


STS-80: In review

Dispatching a German ultraviolet telescope and a saucer-shaped spacecraft designed to grow crystalline semiconductor thin films in the vacuum of space were launched aboard shuttle Columbia's mission in November 1996.


STS-79: In review

The record-setting spaceflight by astronaut Shannon Lucid aboard the Russian space station Mir concluded with shuttle Atlantis' mission in September 1996.


STS-77: In review

A unique payload flew aboard Endeavour's May 1996 mission designed to test inflatable structures in space.


STS-76: In review

The STS-76 astronauts narrate highlights from the 1996 mission that launched Shannon Lucid to the Russian space station Mir.


STS-75: In review

The STS-75 astronauts narrate highlights from the 1996 mission that saw the tethered satellite suddenly break free from the shuttle.


STS-72: In review

The STS-72 astronauts narrate highlights from the 1996 mission that retrieved a Japanese satellite.


STS-122: In review

The STS-122 crew narrates highlights from its mission that delivered Europe's Columbus module to the space station.

 Full presentation
 Mission film

STS-100: In review

The STS-100 astronauts narrate highlights from the April 2001 mission that installed the space station's Canadian robot arm.


STS-102: In review

The STS-102 astronauts narrate highlights from the March 2001 mission that conducted the first ISS resident crew exchange.


STS-123 landing

Shuttle Endeavour returned from space with a night landing March 26 at Kennedy Space Center.


Become a subscriber
More video

Whitson describes rough Soyuz entry and landing
Posted: May 2, 2008

Plunging back into the atmosphere April 19 after a six-month stay aboard the international space station, Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko realized something was very wrong. One of the two modules attached to the crew cabin had failed to separate prior to entry and the spacecraft, moving at some 5 miles per second, slammed into the discernible atmosphere in the wrong orientation.

Peggy Whitson spent six months aboard the station as commander of Expedition 16. Credit: NASA /FONT>
With the capsule "rocking and rolling," Whitson said today, the propulsion module finally broke free and the crew capsule settled into the proper heat-shield-down attitude. At almost the same time, the vehicle transitioned to a so-called ballistic entry, making a steeper descent than usual and subjecting the crew to more than eight times the force of gravity.

In a normal descent, the orientation of the Soyuz is controlled to provide more lift, allowing the spacecraft to fly farther down range and subjecting the crew to less extreme braking forces. In a ballistic entry, lift is not adjusted, the capsule is spun up for stability and it rifles back to Earth on a steeper trajectory, subjecting the crew to more severe deceleration.

As a result, the Soyuz TMA-11 crew capsule landed well short of its target. Malenchenko crawled out on his own and local residents, who reached the capsule before Russian recovery teams, assisted Whitson and South Korean guest cosmonaut So-Yeon Yi.

In an interview today with CBS News, Whitson said she didn't have enough data to fully assess how much additional risk she and her crewmates faced, saying only "I guess the old pilot's saying of 'any landing you can walk away from was a good one' probably applies here."

This was the second Soyuz entry in a row to "go ballistic" after a module separation problem and Russian engineers have launched an investigation to figure out what went wrong and what, if anything, might be needed to prevent a repeat in October when Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov, Oleg Kononenko and U.S. space tourist Richard Garriott return to Earth. NASA space station Program Manager Mike Suffredini said Thursday the Russians hope to complete their initial investigation by the end of the month or shortly thereafter.

"The Soyuz vehicle is an extremely robust vehicle, it has what is referred to as a mono-stable aerodynamic design, which means that it will point itself the right way, which is the heat shield forward for entry, once the other components separate," he said. "The design is such that you can have a pyro bolt not fire and still have the system separate in time for the Soyuz to turn itself around and safely enter the atmosphere. There's many, many years of operations of the Soyuz vehicle that tells you overall, the design is robust. And so we need to let these teams finish deciding what this anomaly was and then we can assess the risk to the crew."

Here is a transcript of the CBS News interview with Whitson:

CBS News: This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sally Ride's launch as the first American woman in space. On the next shuttle flight, Karen Nyberg will become the 50th woman to fly in space versus 432 men. You are now America's most experienced astronaut, with 377 days in space and six spacewalks in your two flights. Can you put all that in perspective? Do you see yourself as a role model? Or are you like Nyberg, who told us yesterday she looks forward to the day when no one's counting?

Whitson: Well, I think Karen's got the right attitude that no one should be counting. But in the meantime, until we get to the point where we aren't counting, I am happy to be a role model. It seems odd to me to think of myself that way, but I hope that I can inspire someone to do something they maybe didn't think they could. Just like when I graduated from high school, they selected the first female astronauts and that was when I thought I should become an astronaut, because I saw someone else who could do it.

CBS News: Normally, I would ask about your station expedition but I'm really interested in your entry. It was more exciting than most, of course, and I want to walk through that in a little more detail. You guys had a normal deorbit burn and then right before entry interface, around 80 miles up or whatever, the modules were commanded to separate. Did you immediately realize the propulsion module had hung up?

Whitson: Not immediately. It took probably a few minutes, maybe a minute or so, before we understood probably something was not exactly right. Yuri noted the (maneuvering) engines were firing and they shouldn't have been at that particular point. But once we did fully separate, we almost immediately went to the ballistic re-entry mode, which is one of the nominal downmodes for the Soyuz.

CBS News: Right. But before that point when you switched to ballistic, do you have a sense of what the spacecraft's orientation was? Soyuz 5 had one like this in 1969 and he went in nose first. I didn't know if you guys were nose first or were you propulsion module down, or how was your attitude?

Whitson: I noted our attitude just before separation, because that's kind of an important point. The attitude should be kind of 90 degrees off the velocity, or the entry interface vector, so that when the two components separate from the descent module they are peeling away and don't have any chance to recontact the descent module. So we were in the correct attitude at that point in time. During that time when we were probably still attached to the propulsion module, there was a lot of movement going on in the capsule and so it was difficult to tell what our attitude was at that particular point in time. Later on, after we were already in the plasma, I noted the plasma was going from the bottom of my seat toward my head, which is the correct orientation, but I didn't note prior to that what our orientation was, and there was enough rocking and rolling going on that I didn't have a chance to actually check it out.

This artist's concept shows how the three modules of the Soyuz spacecraft are supposed to separate, with the crew aboard the middle section. Credit: NASA TV
CBS News: I have this sense of a badminton shuttlecock kind of oscillating around. What kind of motion was it? I don't guess you were actually tumbling, but did you have some yawing going on, were you getting kind of tossed around side to side?

Whitson: It's interesting. Yuri felt like we were more yawing a little bit and I felt like I was being pitched forward and back. It could be the orientation in the capsule, we both were feeling something slightly different. Also, the neuro-sensory feelings are pretty screwy coming back in after being in zero gravity. For instance, I'd been told by several previous crew members when the seats raise (prior to landing), it will look like the control panel is falling into your lap. And so your neuro-sensory feelings at that point in time aren't always trustworthy, I don't think, because you haven't been experiencing it recently.

CBS News: I would think 8 Gs would be pretty tough on a good day, much less after six months in weightlessness. When you transitioned to ballistic after the modules finally separated, how fast did those Gs build up and how long did it last?

Whitson: The buildup started almost as soon as we transitioned to ballistic. We felt the engines fire to start our 17-degrees-per-second spin, that's to maintain the capsule's orientation and give it some stability that way. So we felt that immediately come up. As part of that process, over the next probably minute or so we built up to 8.2 Gs. It was a pretty fast buildup, and then it stayed, it seemed like at least a minute, I think the profile is only a minute. But of course after six months in zero gravity, that felt like a pretty long minute! As we were coming off the backside and the Gs were decreasing, we leveled off around four, four and a half for a little while and then tailed off after that. So four and a half felt easy after eight.

CBS News: I have this image of that guy on the rocket sled, with his cheeks pulling back. Was it like that for you?

Whitson: Yeah, I could feel my face being pulled back and it was pretty hard to breathe.

CBS News: Tell me about the landing itself. I know the parachutes come out and gave you a pretty good jerk and then the braking rockets fired just before touchdown and then bang, you hit. How did that go?

Whitson: Everyone had told me to kind of expect a car crash at the end and I thought that was a pretty accurate description of how it would feel. The ground indicates that we hit once and then bounced and then rolled after that. My sensation was that we hit the ground and rolled. Yuri felt like we had bounced, and so he ... wanted to make sure we were all the way stopped and not moving any more before he released the parachute. Because he had felt the bounce.

CBS News: We heard some reports of smoke in the cockpit. I've been unclear if that was pre or post landing.

Whitson: We had smoke in the cockpit prior to landing. Previous crew members had told me, you know, expect a smoky haze after you come through the plasma and you'll probably smell it. We had that, but then later on, after the chute opened, we also had additional smoke in the cabin and Yuri opted to shut the panel off because it looked like it was coming from underneath the cosmonaut panel.

CBS News: When we watch an entry like that and talk to various folks who aren't there, everything is second hand by definition. You had, some said, everything from a bumpy ride to 'they were almost killed.' What was it for you? Do you have any sense of what additional risk you faced on this entry versus a normal entry, or even a normal ballistic entry for that matter?

Whitson: Well, I don't think I can tell you accurately what that risk was. I think they'll have to do the technical investigation to determine, you know, how long we were out of the appropriate attitude and figure that out. I guess the old pilot's saying of 'any landing you can walk away from was a good one' probably applies here.

CBS News: It probably does. One thing that struck me, too, is you had a guest cosmonaut on board, South Korean engineer So-Yeon Yi. She obviously didn't have nearly the level of training professional astronauts have. I was wondering how she reacted to all of this? She's been quoted saying she was scared she was going to die. I guess the real question is, does this experience say anything about the wisdom of launching non professionals on rocket ships?

Whitson: Non professionals probably don't have the same understanding of the risk they're taking, probably. I think some of them do, it's hard to tell. I think it depends on their background. It is a risk that we are taking every time we launch and every time we land. As a professional, I think all of us accept that risk and understand, or choose, to take that risk. I think for people who aren't maybe as well educated or haven't been associated with the space program as long, maybe they don't fully understand the risks or understand what will be happening to them as a part of a nominal process.

CBS News: Last question, and thanks for taking all this time. Does this experience say anything at all, or raise any concern at all, about reliance on the Soyuz for America's ticket to space after the shuttle's retired in 2010? There's going to be a long period where Soyuz is the only ride in town. Does this raise any concerns at all about long-term reliability or health of that vehicle?

Whitson: In terms of reliability, I think Soyuz is a very reliable spacecraft and I'm sure that the Russians will get to the bottom of the potential causes of why we were downmoding to the ballistic mode in an unexpected manner. But I also think, personally, that we want to minimize the gap between the time when we have to rely solely on any one vehicle. I think after Columbia, it was very important for us to have the Soyuz capability, I think we always need to be prepared to have more than one option to getting into space.

CBS News: Thank you very much. Glad you're back.

Whitson: Great, thanks.