April 19, 2008

Space Station Astronauts Land Off-Target, But Safely

story was updated at 6:05 a.m. EDT.

International Space Station's (ISS) first female commander and two crewmates
are safely back on Earth, but landed well short of their intended landing site
as they capped a marathon mission to the orbiting laboratory.

The Russian
Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft ferrying Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, of
NASA, and her crew to Earth touched down about 295 miles (475 km) short of its
target zone on the central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan.

"The crew
is alive and well. The landing was nominal, but by a backup design," said Anatoly
Perminov, chief of Russia's Federal Space Agency, after the 4:30 a.m. EDT (0830
GMT) landing. "It was a ballistic descent and all the cosmonauts are feeling

A ballistic
reentry is one in which a Soyuz reenters at a steeper than normal angle that
subjects astronaut crews to higher forces of gravity , NASA officials said.

returning from the space station last fall also experienced
a ballistic reentry
, as did the crew of Expedition 6 in 2003.

returned home alongside Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, an Expedition 16
flight engineer, after a six-month mission that added new science and living space
to the $100 billion station. South Korea's first astronaut, 29-year-old
bioengineer So-yeon Yi, also accompanied the Expedition 16 crew to conclude her
own 10-day spaceflight to the ISS.

as Soyuz commander, used a satellite phone to contact recovery forces to relay
that the crew was in good health.

"We went
through the
same thing on Expedition 6," said Steve Lindsey, NASA's chief astronaut who
planned to greet Whitson at the original landing site. "Of course we didn't
hear from them for awhile, so we were concerned. But eventually we got word
that they were located so that's real good news."

teams located the Soyuz crew about 45 minutes its scheduled landing with a
complement of flight surgeons to begin traditional post-landing health checks,
Lindsey added.

Back on

space officials promised an in-depth investigation to hunt down the source of
the ballistic landing. Meanwhile, Expedition 16 crew members were eager to
readapt to life on Earth.

really had a very exciting mission," Whitson said this week. "And to have done
so much, it was more than we could have asked for."

While she
was not looking forward to returning to Earth's gravity after months of
weightlessness, Whitson said she was eager for a wider variety of food at
mealtimes and getting back to her roots, literally, at her home in Houston,

"I really
like working in my garden and planting flowers," Whitson said. "It's about the
right time in Houston to be doing that."

Whitson set
a new spaceflight record on Expedition 16 for the most cumulative time spent in
space by an American.

landing ended a 192-day flight to the station, giving Whitson a career total of
377 days in space during Expedition 16 and her Expedition 5 flight in 2002. She
is now 20th in the ranks of the world's most experienced spaceflyers, though
Malenchenko - with 515 days across four spaceflights - now ranks ninth on the

"It was a
wonderful time," he said of the mission.

station expansion

Whitson and
her crew began Expedition 16 at a sprint, hosting the first of three visiting
NASA shuttle crews about two weeks after their October launch. By late
November, shuttle and ISS astronauts had moved a massive solar power tower,
performed seven spacewalks and some tricky robotic crane work to attach a new
module to space station.

Two more
shuttle flights, in February and March of this year, delivered Europe's $2
billion Columbus laboratory and a storage room for Japan's massive Kibo lab,
which is slated to launch May 31 aboard the shuttle Discovery. Whitson and her
crew also squeezed in extra spacewalks to inspect one solar wing joint and
repair another.

"It's so
large that I can actually lose crew members at times now," Whitson said of the
space station before turning it over to its new skipper, Expedition 17
commander Sergei Volkov. "It's so neat, and I think we're ready for a
six-person crew now."

Volkov - a second-generation
- and Expedition 17 flight engineer Oleg Kononenko are beginning
their own six-month mission alongside NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman. They launched with Yi on April 8.

"I feel
confident going into Expedition 17 with Sergei and Oleg," said Reisman, who
joined the station's Expedition 16 crew last month and is due to return home in
June. "It's going to be an all rookie station. I think that's a first."

meanwhile, flew
to the space station
under a reported $25 million commercial agreement
between her country and Russia's Federal Space Agency and performed a series of
education and science experiments.

She was
selected from among 36,000 applicants to serve as backup to South Korea's first
astronaut, artificial intelligence expert San Ko, but moved to the prime crew
last month after Russian space officials pulled Ko from the flight due to
reading rule violations.

"As a woman
of Korea, and just a person of Korea, I'm so honored to be the one who flew in
space," Yi told reporters this week, adding that she took special care with
experiments designed to spark interest in science among Korean youth. "I want
to make them dream about space."

challenging half-year

Despite its
ambitious construction work, the Expedition 16 crew was not without challenges.

Malenchenko and their crewmates tackled a torn solar wing, damaged solar array
gears and shuttle launch delays that ultimately kept one Expedition 16
astronaut - NASA spaceflyer Dan Tani - in orbit while he grieved over the
unexpected death of his mother in December. Tani returned to Earth two months
later, in mid-February, during NASA's first shuttle mission of this year.

"I actually
think some of my proudest moments of this mission have been how we handled the
problems that have come up," Whitson said.

In just the
last few weeks, Expedition 16 astronauts bid farewell to last month's visiting
shuttle Endeavour crew, watched over the arrival of Europe's first-ever unmanned
cargo ship Jules Verne
and welcomed their relief crew before preparing for
the trip home.

"I was
likening it the other day to Grand Central Station," said Reisman, adding that
he initially expected some bouts of down time and isolation aboard the outpost.
"There hasn't been any tedium up here, it's all been action packed. It's like
the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of space missions."