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Space crew’s hard landing raises hard questions

Saturday's safe return of the latest international space station crew occurred during an anxiety-filled half-hour of official silence that only later was explained by the cluelessness of Moscow Mission Control as to the whereabouts (and even the continued existence) of the Soyuz spacecraft and its three occupants.

Although the crew members survived and were well enough to recount their ordeal on Monday, the landing raises huge questions about the Russian space effort's competence going forward.

How on earth did the Russians lose track of the descending spacecraft? Why did alarming details of the landing — including the ignition of a brush fire that set the collapsed parachute ablaze and filled the landed spacecraft with smoke — take so long to reach the public?

Most importantly for the future, what does this emergency landing — the second in a row — say about quality control on the Soyuz production line, which has now been accelerated to double its former production rate?

The descending Soyuz was aimed at a recovery zone in northern Kazakhstan that has been used by returning cosmonauts for decades. As the time for Saturday's touchdown approached, and then passed, the NASA spokesman in Moscow narrating the landing live could only relay the absence of any communications from the crew.

Some guessed that the capsule had overshot its mark, and search helicopters were directed
toward the east. Then a helicopter stationed far to the west, in the zone reserved for the emergency ballistic landing point, reported seeing the parachute. There was no voice communication from the Soyuz crew until a half-hour after landing, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko managed to unhook himself from his upside-down seat in the side-leaning spacecraft and clamber outside to use a satellite phone.

Meanwhile, confusion within Mission Control reached the point where some operator just decided to guess that the landing had been safe — and flashed a graphic saying so. Many observers misinterpreted this as an indication that data had been received confirming a landing, 20 minutes later than planned. In reality, there were no reports until later.

Landing hard and short
These latest troubles do not rise to the level of threatening future Soyuz launches. The twice-normal deceleration forces (peaking briefly at nine G’s, or the equivalent of nine times the force of Earth's normal gravity) were an added burden for Malenchenko and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who had spent the previous six months in orbit — but they had been fully trained in the emergency landing experience.

The short-term visitor on board the Soyuz, Korean astronaut Yi So-yeon, also avoided injury, although she was shaken up. "I pretended to be OK," she told reporters Monday.

The hard landing likely was the result of a failure in the Soyuz craft's autopilot, which uses thrusters to keep the descent on a smooth course. When the autopilot fails, the craft goes into a stable, constant roll — without the usual aerodynamic "lift." As a result, it lands far short of the original aim point after a much more severe air braking phase.

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Why didn't ground controllers know that the vehicle had switched from a gentler "guided descent" to a steeper "ballistic descent"? Russian space agency chief Anatoly Perminov blamed the crew for not reporting in by radio, but this accusation ignored the existence of radio beacons on the Soyuz, as well as tracking by ground-based radar. Those systems all apparently failed.

The previous Soyuz landing, last October, was forced to make the same sort of emergency descent. And one of the people on that flight, Malaysian cosmonaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, has reported that the crew encountered other, now-familiar problems that were never officially acknowledged at the time.

Sheikh Muszaphar reported on his Weblog that the grass around the capsule began burning quite heavily after touchdown. Smoke filled the cabin, and the external ventilation valves had to be closed — but not before the air made breathing difficult. The three crewmembers had to close their visors and switch back to spacesuit air flow.

Saturday's landing also wound up with smoke in the cabin. Fortunately, the wind blew the flame front away from the spacecraft. Several carloads of local people quickly showed up and helped unload the Soyuz in the hour during which they were waiting for the recovery teams to arrive.

The moral of multiple mishaps?
Do these two back-to-back anomalies provide clues to some common cause? Veteran Russian space journalist Alexander Milkus, writing in the Moscow tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, raised exactly this point.

"I have been told that in recent years Soyuz spacecraft have been assembled practically in
accordance with a just-in-time approach, in a rush,” he wrote, “and that the finishing touches have been put well nigh at the last minute. Isn't this the main cause of the problems?"

The root cause of the “rush” is not hard to imagine. With the space station slated to begin operating with a permanent six-person crew a year from now, the Russians have had to double their production rate of Soyuz spacecraft. Since it takes about two and a half years to fabricate one spacecraft, the production line ramped up early in 2007, just as the finishing touches were being made on the Soyuz that experienced the emergency landing last fall.

Doubling the production rate of a labor-intensive operation means either massive overtime for existing workers, or a mass influx of new workers, or some combination of both bad variations. Added to this is the continuing crisis engendered by the graying space-industry workforce, as veteran workers either retire or (often) die off while still working.

Russian space officials have acknowledged these demographic difficulties and assert that higher salaries are attracting younger workers in time for them to complete apprenticeships alongside the veterans, picking up the lessons of the previous generation.

But at the very least, this issue needs to be revisited, and perhaps NASA needs to take a more profound interest in its implications.

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books about the U.S. and Russian space programs, including "Red Star in Orbit" and "Star-Crossed Orbits."