Ooof. This is why NASA designed the space shuttle to land like a plane.
Two space station crew members, American commander Jeff Williams and Russian flight engineer Maxim Suraev, landed their Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft in three feet of snow this morning on the steppes of Kazakhstan, finishing a five-and-a-half-month stay in orbit.
Landing after a long trip in microgravity is never easy. As one veteran, Don Pettit, put it, you don’t climb out of the Russian Soyuz, you ooze out. Despite hours of daily exercise, your muscles atrophy, your bones weaken, your heart isn’t as strong…and the Soyuz, designed more for reliability than comfort, have a habit of coming to rest on their sides or at odd angles.
The very first Soyuz, in 1967, crashed on landing, killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. But the Soyuz has slowly been refined over the years, and developed a reputation as simple but reliable. Its landing capsule (see pictures) is shaped like a blunt bullet, able to survive a rocky re-entry — there have been some — and deliver its occupants to earth alive.
It’s so…inelegant, though, sometimes landing off-target in middle-of-nowhere Asia, sometimes leaving weakened cosmonauts hanging at odd angles in their seats. It can hold three crew members — barely, in seats in which they’re folded into fetal positions.
American astronauts had better get used to it, though. The shuttles were more dignified, landing on a runway, but they were more costly and delicate than NASA had hoped, and only four more shuttle flights remain (ABC’s Gina Sunseri reports NASA is politely lobbying for a fifth). Americans will have to hitch rides with the Russians for several years, unless the Obama administration succeeds in its proposal to have private companies ferry astronauts back and forth from the station. The American Orion capsule had a ballistic shape like the Soyuz, but the White House has proposed Orion be canceled.
Williams and Suraev were picked up by a Russian recovery team and bundled in blankets, and will now need some rehab to get back on their feet. Andrew Thomas, an American astronaut who spent 141 days on the Russian Mir space station in 1998, said he was surprised afterward to find that the calluses on his feet had softened after months floating in the heavens.
(NASA photos by Bill Ingalls.)