We’ve teased that the term “soft” landing is utterly inappropriate, but our latest video makes that painfully clear. The preparation, waving goodbye, and gentle undocking are a deceptive moment of calm before the parachutes fling open and the chaos begins.
The Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only way for astronauts to get to and from the space station. It takes three hours after release to safely de-orbit and execute a semi-graceful crash into the plains of Kazakhstan.
The gentle detachment from the space station is deceptively smooth: from the moment parachutes flare open to jerk the Soyuz capsule like a small toy, astronauts are tossed around on tooth-rattling, soul-shaking rough ride until they slam into the ground.
The Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on June 11, 2015. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The departure from the space station is one of the few smooth segments, using a gentle impactless separation that minimizes the chance of collisions. But soon things get a lot more rough: astronauts describe the sensation of resounding explosive bolts shedding unnecessary parts of the spacecraft are shed prior to reentry as feeling like someone is beating on the crew capsule with a sledgehammer.
Yeah, sure, that’s a “soft” landing... Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Next, the capsule is encompassed in plasma from the friction of slamming back into the atmosphere, burning and blackening the outer coating of the spacecraft. Soyuz then spins clockwise or counterclockwise to increase or decrease lift, controlling its trajectory while unintentionally enhancing the disorientation of returning to gravity after months aboard the space station.
Shkaplerov through the window of the Soyuz after safely landing. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The astronauts feel a maximum of 4Gs (four times Earth gravity) during deceleration, unless something goes wrong and Soyuz switches to a harsher ballistic trajectory and the astronauts are slammed by up to 9Gs. Shortly after, the parachute cover is jettisoned, and a drogue parachute flings out to send the capsule bobbing and tumbling like a poorly-controlled yo-yo. Next, the main parachute deploys, finally allowing another moment of calm as the capsule dangles, cools, and jettisons burnt covers and vents potentially-explosive excess fuel and oxygen.
Pay no heed to the singeing. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The parachute switches to symmetric suspension to reorient the capsule vertically, positioning astronauts so that their now-raised seats will absorb as much of the shock of landing as possible. Just 70 centimeters (27 inches) above the ground, six retro-rockets fire to slow the capsule to 5 kilometers per hour (3.1 miles per hour).
Russian support teams prepare to extract the astronauts after landing. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Astronauts brace for the hard landing by tucking books up against their chest, holding their arms close to their chests, and avoiding talking to keep from biting their own tongues. When the capsule finally hits the ground, the seats keep going down farther as shock absorbers cushion the impact. As for how soft that landing is? In an ESA training video, astronaut Paolo Nespoli described his experience as, “For me, it felt like a head-on collision between a truck and and a small car, and of course I was in the small car.”
When the latest crew — NASA astronaut Terry Virts, Roscosmos cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti — returned to safely Earth on June 11, 2015 in their Soyuz TMA-15M, ESA captured every rattling moment of the capsule to train the next flight group, including Cristoforetti’s training classmate Thomas Pesquet:
And yet apparently it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been: after watching the video, Cristoforetti quipped back at her colleague, “Thomas, be ready for worse than that, we were lucky!”
Ground crew assisting Cristoforetti out of the Soyuz capsule. Image credit: ESA/S. Corvaja
This might be the first time I’ve ever not been jealous of an astronaut.
It takes a lot of personnel to support three astronauts. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls