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Soyuz capsule makes snowy landing with three-man crew
Posted: March 16, 2011

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Outgoing Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly, Soyuz TMA-01M commander Alexander Kaleri and flight engineer Oleg Skripochka undocked from the International Space Station Wednesday, plunged back into the atmosphere and descended to a snowy touchdown in Kazakhstan to close out 159-day mission.

Credit: Energia
With Kaleri at the controls in the descent module's center seat, flanked by Kelly on his right and flight engineer Skripochka to his left, the Soyuz TMA-01M undocked from the Poisk compartment atop the station's Zvezda command module at 12:27 a.m. EDT (GMT-4).

After testing repairs to the Soyuz avionics system, Kaleri monitored a four-minute 17-second rocket firing starting at 3:03:17 a.m., slowing the ship by 258 mph to begin the fall to Earth.

The three modules making up the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft separated as planned just before atmospheric entry, and the central crew module carrying Kaleri, Skripochka and Kelly lined up for a fiery descent to a parachute- and rocket-assisted touchdown at 3:54 a.m. near Arkalyk in north central Kazakhstan.

Braving blowing snow, brisk winds and temperatures in the 20s, Russian recovery crews and flight surgeons, along with a NASA support team, were standing by to help the astronauts out of the cramped Soyuz descent module.

"The search and recovery forces still working to extract the crew from the Soyuz capsule, which landed safely and on its side, dragging its parachute for what I would consider to be about 25 years or so before it came to rest on its side," said NASA spokesman Rob Navias, on the scene with recovery crews in Kazakhstan. "The crew reported to be in good shape."

A few minutes later, Kaleri, Kelly and Skripochka had been pulled from the capsule and carried to reclining chairs. Grainy video from the landing site showed support crews bundling the crew members in blankets as they began their re-adaptation to gravity.

Because of the brutal winter conditions, the recovery team planned to fly the trio to nearby Kustanai for initial medical checks and a traditional Kazakh welcoming ceremony.

From there, Kelly was scheduled to fly directly back to Houston aboard a NASA aircraft while Kaleri and Skripochka were expected to head for the cosmonaut training center in Star City near Moscow for debriefing and reunions with family and friends.

Kaleri, with 770 days in space over five flights, is now the second most experienced space flier behind cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who has logged 803 days in space during six missions.

Back in orbit, Expedition 27 commander Dmitry Kondratyev, Paolo Nespoli and Catherine "Cady" Coleman will have the space station to themselves until three fresh crew members -- Alexander Samokutyaev, Andrey Borisenko and Ronald Garan -- arrive aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft.

Launch originally was planned for March 29, but the flight has been delayed to replace suspect components in the craft's communications gear.

The Soyuz TMA-01M was the first of a new breed of Russian crew ferry craft featuring upgraded, lightweight digital electronics and navigation gear. During launch Oct. 7 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the capsule's Neptune computer display system experienced a converter failure, resulting in dropouts from a variety of analogue instruments.

On Feb. 2, Kaleri installed replacement rate measurement units called "ammeters" to restore roll and roll rate data and wired around the failed converter to recover the necessary data displays.

Shortly after undocking Wednesday, Kaleri carried out two tests: one to check the operation of the upgraded capsule's docking control for future linkups by follow-on spacecraft and another to check out the operation of the ammeters during manual changes in the craft's orientation.

The tests appeared to go smoothly and the crew presumably had the full suite of Soyuz re-entry modes available for descent to Kazakhstan: two automatic modes and two manual modes.

But as with all Soyuz descents, Russian recovery forces were deployed to quickly assist the crew whether the Soyuz TMA-01 spacecraft followed the planned trajectory or if it landed short due to a steep, so-called ballistic descent.

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.

Back-to-back Soyuz re-entries on Oct. 21, 2007, and April 19, 2008, ended with ballistic descents because of module separation problems. All re-entries since then, including Wednesday's, followed the normal, less-stressful trajectory.

Kelly had a challenging stay in orbit, overseeing the arrival of Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships, arrival of the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft carrying Kondratyev, Nespoli and Coleman and a visit by shuttle Discovery, which delivered a final U.S. module to the station.

Kelly heard from afar about an attack on his twin brother Mark Kelly's wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in Tucson in January.

Offering a "moment of silence" Jan. 10 to remember the victims of the shooting spree, Scott Kelly said "we have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station."

"As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful," he said. "Unfortunately, it is not. These days, we're constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions but also with our irresponsible words. We are better than this. We must do better."

During a brief change-of-command ceremony aboard the station Monday, Kelly said "we'll miss this place, but we look forward to getting back to Earth."

"It's a real honor and a privilege for me to have been in command of this really miraculous facility for oh, several months now," he said. "If you could see this place in person, it really is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing engineering achievements that people have accomplished.

"If we can build something like this, we can meet any challenge and we certainly have challenges back on Earth, and we recognize that. Our hearts go out to our partners in Japan that have suffered greatly. We really feel for them and know they will recover from this. The Japanese people are very, very resilient."

With the retirement of the space shuttle after two final missions, NASA will rely on Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S., European, Canadian and Japanese astronauts to and from the International Space Station until new commercial rockets and spacecraft are designed, built and tested.

NASA officials Monday announced an extension to the agency's existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency covering crew transportation, rescue and related services from 2014 through June 2016. The contract is valued at $753 million and covers launch-through-landing support for 12 astronauts. That works out to $62.75 million per seat.