Rough Soyuz Landing Creates Bumps for NASA

NASA is trying to downplay fears that the recent bone-rattling landing of a Russian capsule could mean it is less reliable than thought. Once NASA retires the space shuttle in 2010, the Russian Soyuz will be the only means of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Tomorrow, a top NASA official is headed to Capitol Hill. One issue that's likely to come up is last Saturday's bone-rattling landing of a Russian space capsule. The Soyuz hit the ground over 200 miles off target. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on concerns about the safety of the capsules and its astronauts.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Early Saturday morning, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson was on her way back to earth, sitting next to two crewmates inside the cramped Soyuz capsule. As it fell out of space out of Kazakhstan, Whitson says the ride got intense. The spacecraft unexpectedly went into what's called a ballistic reentry, spinning like a bullet.

Ms. PEGGY WHITSON (Astronaut): And I saw 8.2 G's on the meter, and it was pretty dramatic.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's twice what returning astronauts usually feel, making things especially hard for Whitson. Her body wasn't used to earth's gravity after spending half a year floating around the space station.

Ms. WHITSON: Gravity's not really my friend right now, and 8 G's was especially not my friend, but, you know, it didn't last too long.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They hit the ground way off target, near an area where some farmers were burning grass.

Ms. WHITSON: It wasn't the search and rescue who got us out of the capsule.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was just some local guys. The astronauts used a satellite phone to call Russia's mission control this is the second time in a row that the Soyuz has switched itself into a ballistic reentry mode. The last incident, in October, was blamed on a faulty cable.

Mr. ANATOLY PERMINOV (Director, Russian Space Program): (Russian spoken)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: After this landing, the head of Russia's space program, Anatoly Perminov, made some televised comments noting that there were two women on the ship, and that in Russia, quote, "There are certain bad omens about that sort of thing." But the Russians have started an investigation to find some less superstitious reasons. At least one Russian news agency is quoting an unnamed source and saying that Whitson and her crewmates could have died, that their heat shield was facing the wrong way during the fiery reentry. Russian officials deny that the astronauts were in mortal danger. And yesterday, one of NASA's top officials, Bill Gerstenmaier, spoke to reporters in a hastily arranged conference call.

Mr. BILL GERSTENMAIER (NASA): I'm starting to see a lot of things show up in the press and in the media, speculation on what occurred during the entry.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He emphasized that Russian investigators still need to inspect the spacecraft and its flight recorder.

Mr. GERSTENMAIER: This is clearly an indication of something that we need pay attention to, and we need to work this. I don't want to dismiss this. But I think we also need to not overreact in this, either.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Soyuz has been the reliable workhorse of the Russian program for decades, and NASA needs that to continue. The agency will retire the space shuttle in 2010, and until NASA builds a new spaceship, this Russian craft will be the only way for American astronauts to travel to the space station. John Logsdon is director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Dr. JOHN LOGSDON (Director, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University): The country has made a pretty large scale mistake by getting ourselves in the situation of having to depend on the Soyuz. But basically, we've made that mistake, and it's really too late to do much about it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA officials expect Russia's investigation to take more than a month. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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