April 21, 2008

Technical Glitch Rattles Astronaut

South Korea's first astronaut returned to Earth Saturday quite shaken, following a  particularly steep decent in which flames engulfed the capsule.   

A technical glitch had turned the craft's return to Earth into a test of the crew's nerve and stamina, as the team landed in the Kazakh steppes about 260 miles off target.

The capsule's "ballistic" re-entry exposed the crew to twice the typical gravitational forces, and the flames may have been due to friction heating the capsule as it fell through the atmosphere.

Yi So-yeon, a 29-year-old nanotechnology engineer from Seoul, had just completed an 11-day mission aboard the  International Space Station (ISS), along with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson.

"During the descent there was some kind of fire outside the Soyuz capsule because we were going through the atmosphere," Yi told Reuters.

"At first I was scared, but the two other guys looked okay, so I tried to look okay too," said Yi, during a half-hour news conference at Star City, a Soviet-era cosmonaut training center on the outskirts of Moscow.   

Yi smiled and made jokes during the briefing, a stark contrast to Malenchenko and Whitson, who appeared thin and exhausted after half a year in space.   The duo gave short answers, and Whitson needed assistance and support to balance herself as she walked.

Whitson, 48, is now the American with the longest amount of cumulative time, 377 days, spent in space.

Yi,  who has become a phenomenon in South Korea since taking off for the mission, brushed aside her recent fame, saying she has had little contact with family and friends since her return from space.

"In fact, they are the heroes right now," Yi said, referring to Malenchenko and Whitson. "I'm just a beginner and a little ashamed to say that I am a hero."

Yi told reporters of a more cheerful incident on the ISS.

"I sang 'Fly Me to the Moon'," Yi said, referring to the 1950s pop song. "It's my favorite song from university although at that time I didn't know I would be an astronaut."

Whitson said the ballistic landing was unusual but not an emergency.

"The Soyuz has been through its history very reliable, there has obviously been some issue in the last couple of descents which went ballistic, but I'm sure the engineers will determine what the problems are and get them fixed," she told reporters.

The Soyuz is the world's longest-serving manned space vehicle.  In 1961, a previous version, called the Vostok, transported the first person into space.  In October, a Soyuz capsule carrying Malaysia's first space tourist landed 125 miles off course in a similar ballistic landing caused by a technical glitch.


On The Net:

NASA Expedition 16