Astronauts land 295 miles off-target

April 20, 2008 1:16:19 PM PDT
A Russian capsule carrying South Korea's first astronaut touched down 260 miles off target in northern Kazakhstan on Saturday after hurtling through the atmosphere in a bone-jarring descent from the international space station. It was the second time in a row - and the third since 2003 - that the Soyuz landing went awry.

Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said the condition of the crew - South Korean bioengineer Yi So-yeon, American astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko - was satisfactory, though the three had been subjected to severe gravitational forces during the re-entry.

The Russian TMA-11 craft touched down at 4:51 a.m. EDT about 260 miles off its mark, Lyndin said, a highly unusual distance given how precisely engineers plan for such landings. It was also around 20 minutes later than scheduled. Search helicopters then took 25 minutes to locate the capsule and determine the crew was unharmed.

Officials said the craft followed a so-called "ballistic re-entry" - a very steep trajectory that subjects the crew to extreme physical force. Lyndin said the crew had experienced gravitational forces up to 10 times those on Earth during the 3 1/2 hour descent.

The crew were being examined on site by medical officials, and were later to return to Moscow for further evaluation.

"The most important thing is that the crew is healthy and well," Federal Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov told reporters. "The landing occurred normally, but according to a back-up plan - the descent was a ballistic trajectory."

Perminov said engineers would examine the capsule to determine what caused the glitch, though he blamed the Soyuz crew for not informing Mission Control about the unusual descent.

Later, Perminov referred to a naval superstition that having women aboard a ship was bad luck when asked about the presence of two women on the Soyuz.

"You know in Russia, there are certain bad omens about this sort of thing, but thank God that everything worked out successfully," he said. "Of course in the future, we will work somehow to ensure that the number of women will not surpass" the number of men.

Challenged by a reporter, Perminov responded: "This isn't discrimination. I'm just saying that when a majority (of the crew) is female, sometimes certain kinds of unsanctioned behavior or something else occurs, that's what I'm talking about." He did not elaborate.

Yi traveled to the station on April 10, along with cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko, who have replaced Whitson and Malenchenko. South Korea paid Russia $20 million for Yi's flight.

In South Korea, several hundred people gathered at the Seoul's Olympic Park to watch Yi's return on a giant television screen, clapping and cheering after a broadcaster reported the landing.

"I'm happy and feel grateful as she safely returned," Yi's mother, Jung Geum-sun, told the SBS television network. "I want to hug her, tell her: 'you worked hard."'

Whitson and Malenchenko spent roughly six months performing experiments and maintaining the orbiting station and were replaced by Volkov and Kononenko. They joined American astronaut Garrett Reisman, who arrived last month on the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour.

According to NASA, Whitson, 48, set a new American record for cumulative time in space - 377 days.

In October, a technical glitch sent a Soyuz spacecraft carrying Malaysia's first space traveler and two Russian cosmonauts on a steeper-than-normal path during their return to Earth.

A similar problem happened in May 2003 when the crew also experienced a steep, off-course landing. It then took salvage crews several hours to locate the spacecraft because of communications problems.

Despite the mishaps, the Russian space program has a reputation for reliability.

The single-use Soyuz and Progress vehicles have long been the workhorses of the space station program, regularly shuttling people and cargo to the orbiting outpost. They took on greater importance following the grounding of the U.S. space shuttle fleet in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster.