South Korean Describes Scary Return

APCrew members Malenchenko, Whitson and So-yeon posing for the media at a news conference Monday in Star City.
STAR CITY, Moscow Region -- South Korea's first astronaut said Monday she was "really scared" when the Russian space capsule she was in made an unexpectedly steep descent to Earth over the weekend.

"During descent I saw some kind of fire outside as we were going through the atmosphere," said Yi So-yeon, a 29-year-old bioengineer. "At first I was really scared because it looked really, really hot and I thought we could burn."

But then, she said, she noticed it was not even warm inside the Soyuz capsule. "I looked at the others and I pretended to be OK," Yi said.

The steeper-than-usual descent from the international space station subjected Yi, American astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yury Malenchenko to severe gravitational forces during the re-entry Saturday.

The technical glitch also sent the TMA-11 craft off-course, and it landed about 420 kilometers from its target on Kazakhstan's barren steppe.

All three members of the crew walked slowly and were unsteady on their feet Monday when arriving for the news conference at the Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow.

Malenchenko said it was not yet clear what caused the unusual descent.

"There was no action of the crew that led to this," he said. "Time will tell what went wrong."

It was the second time in a row -- and the third since 2003 -- that a Soyuz landing has gone awry.

Officials said the craft followed a so-called "ballistic re-entry" -- a very steep trajectory that subjects the crew to extreme physical force. Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said the crew experienced gravitational forces up to 10 times those on Earth during the 3 1/2-hour descent.

Yi traveled to the international space station on April 10, along with cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko, who have replaced Whitson and Malenchenko. South Korea paid Russia $20 million for Yi's flight.

Whitson and Malenchenko spent roughly six months doing experiments and maintaining the orbiting station before Volkov and Kononenko replaced them. They joined U.S. astronaut Garrett Reisman, who arrived last month on the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour.

According to NASA, Whitson, 48, set a new American record for cumulative time in space -- 377 days.