Soyuz Story Draws Ire of Federal Agency

The Federal Space Agency on Wednesday denied media reports that the lives of a crew returning from the international space station were in danger during their unusually rough ride in a Soyuz capsule on the weekend.

"This is nothing but a smear campaign," agency spokesman Alexander Vorobyov said.

On Tuesday, a Russian space official told Interfax that the crew of the Soyuz capsule, which landed in Kazakhstan hundreds of kilometers off-target, was in serious danger.

The official said the capsule entered the atmosphere improperly, hatch-first instead of with its heat shields leading the way, Interfax reported. As a result, the hatch suffered significant damage.

"The fact that the entire crew ended up in one piece and uninjured is a great success. Everything could have turned out much worse," the official said. "You could say the situation was on a razor's edge."

Kommersant reported that the crew — South Korea's first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko — could have died. A "well-informed" space industry official said the capsule's hatch had almost been burned through, but the capsule for some reason reversed its orientation to continue its descent with the heat shields leading, the paper reported. If the hatch-first descent had continued, the capsule's parachutes could have also been destroyed, causing the craft to slam against the Earth at an enormous speed, the source said, Kommersant reported.

The three-person crew was subjected to forces of about eight times those of Earth's gravity for up to two minutes. Normal Soyuz returns generate G-forces of about five.

The crew endured such severe gravitational forces because the craft took a steeper-than-usual re-entry, called a "ballistic trajectory."

The Interfax source said the TMA-11 capsule's antenna burned up on entry.

The space agency's Vorobyov confirmed there had been problems, saying the Soyuz hatch and the antenna suffered partial burn damage but that this was a common occurrence when capsules re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.

Vorobyov insisted that the capsule could not have entered the atmosphere backward, as the hatch side is lighter than the side where heat shields are located. "The laws of physics would have made it impossible" for the capsule to descend in that position.

The Federal Space Agency spokesman described as "incompetent" the sources for the story that the crew was threatened and accused of them of trying to tarnish the image of Soyuz capsules as reliable craft to discourage NASA from buying them.

Agency officials say they hope NASA will start buying launches of two Soyuz-TMAs per year in order to facilitate U.S. participation in the international space station once the U.S. agency discontinues the use of shuttles.

The landing was the second straight — and the third since 2003 — in which something went awry with the Soyuz's return. The space official quoted by Interfax said this signaled problems with the Russian space program.

NASA associate administrator for space operations William H. Gerstenmaier said the U.S. space agency was not aware that there had been any danger to the crew, although it had not asked if the crew was at risk.