Soyuz Landing – Apparently Much Worse Than Thought

MSNBC’s James Oberg has an analysis of Saturday’s mishap involving a Soyuz spacecraft that experienced a high-G re-entry and landed 260 miles off course. Apparently, things were worse than originally reported – including a brush fire that burned the parachute and filled the capsule with smoke, and a confused Mission Control that lost track of the spacecraft.

The three-person crew – ISS Commander Peggy Whitson, Russian Flight Engineer Yuri Malenchenko, and South Korean bioengineer Yi So-yeon -was subjected to about nine times the force of gravity. Yi, the only rookie on the flight, said she was scared but reassured by the calm of her colleagues during the bone-jarring descent. “I looked at the others and I pretended to be OK,” she said during a press conference Monday.

Oberg speculates that Soyuz’s autopilot malfunctioned, forcing the spacecraft into an emergency, ballistic descent. This is the second straight time that an emergency landing occurred, and the third time in five years. Oberg said Russia is facing a challenge of ramping up production of the usually reliable spacecraft amid plans to double the International Space Station’s crew from three to six and to retire the space shuttle in 2010. Meanwhile, Russia is facing a wave of retirements among its space workers and the need to hire younger, less experienced engineers and technicians.