Soyuz Capsule Misses the Mark on Landing

APGround crew checking the area around the Soyuz capsule after it landed in northern Kazakhstan on Saturday.
A Russian space capsule touched down in Kazakhstan after hurtling through the Earth's atmosphere in a steeper-than-normal descent, subjecting the crew to severe G-forces and landing hundreds of kilometers off target.

It was the second time in a row — and the third since 2003 — that the Soyuz landing went awry, though none are believed to have caused permanent medical problems for the crews.

Saturday's mission saw the return to Earth of South Korea's first astronaut, Yi So-yeon. She spent 10 days in space before joining U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yury Malenchenko in the 3 1/2-hour, bone-jarring descent from the international space station.

Russian engineers target returning capsules to a landing site near the town of Arkalyk in Kazakhstan's barren north. But after entering the atmosphere, the TMA-11 capsule for some reason began a "ballistic trajectory."

That subjects the crew to G-forces more than double what occur under normal circumstances, Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said.

Parachutes then slowed the craft and dropped it onto the Central Asian steppes in a puff of dust — 20 minutes late and some 420 kilometers off target. It took another 25 minutes before search helicopters could locate the capsule and determine the crew was unharmed. Medical officials said they were in satisfactory condition, but gave no details.

"The most important thing is that the crew is healthy and well," Federal Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov told a postlanding news conference. "The landing occurred normally, but according to a backup 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 was asked about the presence of two women on the Soyuz, and referred to a naval superstition that having women on a ship was bad luck.

"You know in Russia, there are certain bad omens about this sort of thing, but thank God 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 said: "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.

It was the second landing in a row of a Soyuz capsule that has gone awry. In October, a glitch sent Malaysia's first space traveler and two Russian cosmonauts on a steeper-than-normal path during their return to Earth.

Despite the mishaps, the Russian space program has a reputation for reliability.