Posted by: Rowan | January 18, 2009

Bumpy landings

If, like me, you think landing at Wellington airport is sometimes a white-knuckle experience, this story on may give you another angle on the problem.

It’s just gone 40 years since cosmonaut Boris Volynov made the scariest possible reentry from orbit (and, incidentally, the first time men came back to Earth in a different vehicle than the one in which they’d left it). Here’s Wired:

To say that Volynov experienced one of the roughest re-entries in the history of space flight (at least by anyone who lived to tell the tale) is to say the least. Soyuz 5‘s service module failed to detach at retrofire, causing the vehicle to assume an aerodynamic position that left the heat shield pointed the wrong way as it re-entered the atmosphere. The only thing standing between Volynov and a fiery death was the command module’s thin hatch cover.

The interior of Volynov’s capsule filled with noxious fumes as the gaskets sealing the hatch started to burn, and it got very hot in there (which, a short time later was something he probably missed). Luckily for the cosmonaut, the stress and heat being generated outside the spacecraft caused the connecting struts on the service module to finally give way. When they did, Volynov’s module, now freed, immediately corrected its position so that the heat shield faced in the right direction.

But wait. There’s more.

In the chaos of re-entry, some of Soyuz 5‘s parachute cables fouled, resulting in only a partial chute deployment. Just to ice the cake a bit, the soft-landing rockets failed, too, so Volynov was very aware of impact when his hardy Soyuz module plowed into the earth. It hit the ground so hard, in fact, that Volynov broke his teeth.

But wait. There’s more.

Given that the entire re-entry-and-landing process was pretty well botched, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Volynov came down well short of the intended landing area. In fact, he landed in the Ural Mountains, where he was greeted by a local temperature measuring a brisk minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit. With rescue several hours away at best, our intrepid cosmonaut decided to hoof it for safety. He plodded a few kilometers before finding a cheery fire and a brimming samovar in the cottage of a welcoming peasant.

But wait. There’s still more.

You’d think that after all this, the guy might be tempted to call it a career. But no, not our Volynov. He returned to space seven years later as commander of Soyuz 21 and spent 18 days aboard the Salyut space station.

Better him than me. I’ll stick with Wellington airport, thanks.


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