The Union Recorder

Columns

May 20, 2014

OUR SPACE: Things that go bump in the steppe

MILLEDGEVILLE — Gone are the days when the space shuttle glided in for an elegant landing at Kennedy Space Center. Approaching the extra-long runway, like an airplane would, the shuttle touched down in a small puff of smoke as the tires hit the ground, then deploy a parachute to further slow its speed until it came to a comfortable stop further down the tarmac.

Granted, it only looked elegant; since the orbiter had no actual engines to fly the craft the rest of the way it had all of the flying capability of an airborne brick. Thankfully it had small wings and ailerons to aid in steering it, but by and large — yep, it was pretty much a flying cinder block.

At least it looked great. Unlike the way the good old Soyuz capsule comes home — with a teeth-rattling bump in the steppe of Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz starts its trip back to Earth from the ISS pretty much the same way as the shuttle did - by firing some onboard thrusters in the opposite way it’s going, thus slowing it down and allowing gravity to win the fight against speed. After that the cosmonauts use smaller thrusters to keep the capsule oriented in the proper direction as it free-falls to Earth in a fiery blaze.

It’s the actual landing itself that’s the scary part. Because there is no large ice-free body of water available a Soyuz has to touch down on dry land - a large prairie-type grassland called a steppe. And without any aerodynamic features to speak of (the Soyuz looks much like an oversized lumpy thimble) it’s all set for making a good-size crater on impact, turning its precious human cargo into mushy bone soup.

Enter more retro-rockets and parachutes.

Similar to what slowed the capsule down in the first place, just before the impact the rockets fire and keep the spacecraft from embedding itself into the ground. The effect inside is almost as bad - a dramatic deceleration that is actually quite painful, but it isn’t fatal.

Once the capsule is on terra firma, another big difference becomes apparent.

At KSC a van picked up the astronauts as soon as they had climbed out of the shuttle and whisked them away to be checked over by medical personnel and for proper debriefings. Everything is very streamlined and almost private. You can’t really get close unless you’re a medic or the bus driver.

Not so for a Soyuz landing. The space-farers are unceremoniously pulled out of the craft and carried to recliners where they get a quick medical checkup surrounded by a crowd of hundreds of people. It looks more like a giant welcome party than a spacecraft landing. But tradition is tradition, and the Russians have done their manned landings like that since the beginning. It seems to be working just fine, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Still, one can’t help but miss the elegance of a shuttle landing, and sadly, there won’t ever be others. The next manned space vehicle the U.S. will use will most likely go for a water landing, like all the pre-shuttle flights did. And if you’ve ever made a “cannon ball” entry into your local pool you know that it’s not exactly easy on you.

Last week another ISS crew had the experience of going bump in the steppe - all went well and everyone made it just fine. And of course the welcoming party was as big as they come!

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