Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Going Ballistic


Interior of Soyuz spacecraft at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum

ISS Commander Peggy Whitson has spent a record-setting 377 days in Space. Her return with South Korean Yi So-Yeon and Russian Yuri Malanchenko was an adventure in itself. In 2003 the Marooned Expedition Six crew returned on a Soyuz that unexpectedly went into ballistic trajectory, landing them hundreds of miles off-target. Several tense hours passed before they were even known to be alive. In October 2007 the same glitch caused two Russians and a Malaysian to land 300 km off target. Oops, I did it again.

Peggy Whitson's Soyuz went into the same ballistic trajectory, complete with punishing gee forces. During descent Soyuz pitched so that the entry hatch instead of the heatshield faced forward. The hatch was seriously damaged; if it had burned through the crew would be shrimp on the barbie. An antenna failure left them out of communication. The pressure equalising valve was also damaged--failure of a similiar valve on reentry in 1971 killed three cosmonauts. They landed 260 km off target. Fortunately after Expedition Six the Soyuzes were equipped with a satellite phone. This is the second time in a row that the ballistic descent has occurred.

This year's mission to repair Hubble will be the last for Atlantis. After the Shuttles are retired in 2010, there will be a gap until Orion can carry people into Space (2015? 2016? Later?). NASA hopes that the commercial COTS programme will be able to fly crew and cargo to ISS. Let us wish Elon Musk and the other competitors good fortune. Relying on Soyuz creates both political and safety risks.

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