MOSCOW – 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 “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 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.