What Would NASA Do If A Soyuz Landed In America?

By Keith Cowing
May 4, 2003
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What Would NASA Do If A Soyuz Landed In America?

The Expedition 6 crew returned to Earth late Saturday in a Soyuz TMA spacecraft. Inside were cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin and astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit. This marked the first return of humans from space since the Columbia accident. As was the case with Columbia’s last mission, some anxiety suddenly surrounded the final stages of their return when contact with the spacecraft was lost. While the exact location of their spacecraft was unknown for a few hours, an experienced recovery team soon found them.

But what would happen if a Soyuz landed outside of the traditional recovery zone in Kazakhstan – such as on a large flat plain in America?

We Know You’re Out There

While their descent seemed nominal, with contact made between the crew and Mission control in Moscow as they descended, contact was lost for a while after they landed. As the silence grew longer people began to get concerned. According to various wire reports, the mood in mission control started to turn somber as the lurking possibility of another accident apparently began to form in people’s minds.

At one point, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, RSA Director Yuri Koptev, and members of the crew’s families were escorted out of the viewing gallery. As soon as the crew was found the quiet control room became joyous once again.

This was the first return from space of a Soyuz TMA capsule. While the Soyuz TM is an upgraded version of a venerable and reliable system, it returned to Earth flying a simple ballistic reentry without any crew or computer intervention. As such, the spacecraft took a steeper approach resulting in a landing some 460 km (285 miles) away from its planned touchdown point. Russia is not sure why this happened and has already begun an investigation.

After more than searching for several hours, airborne spotters located the spacecraft. By that time the crew had emerged from the capsule and were seen waving to the search teams as they flew over head. It would be several hours more until recovery teams woudl make it to the landing site.

According to a NASA status report: “Touchdown occurred 460 km short (southwest) of the intended site, at 49.37 deg North, 61.2 deg East, i.e., closer to Baikonur than to the more northeasterly capital city of Astana. After a lengthy search for the spacecraft, the first two helicopters reached it at about 2:36 am, four-and-a-half hours after its touchdown. At first, the crew, which was found in good health and great shape, was to be flown to the nearer Baikonur Cosmodrome. But later the SAR (search and recovery) forces reverted to the earlier plan and transported Ken Bowersox, Nikolai Budarin and Donald Pettit to Astana, prior to their flight to Zwezdniy Gorodok (Star City) today.”

Notably absent from most initial arrival photos showing only Budarin and Bowersox was astronaut Don Pettit. Pettit was seen in some photos being carried to the recovery helicopter on a stretcher. The steep reentry increased the G-load on the crew beyond normal making the trip all that more stressful. According to NASA, after his first spaceflight, Pettit was taking a bit longer to adapt than his veteran crewmates. Pettit later appeared before cameras looking no worse for wear.

The crew has since been taken next to Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City, Russia. There, the crew will undergo a period of physical rehabilitation. Bowersox and Pettit are slated to return to Houston in several weeks.

Soyuz: Reliable – But Not Without Problems

While Soyuz landings are somewhat routine after more than 30 years they do occasionally go wrong. The first Soyuz landing ended in tragedy in 1967 when the vehicle’s parachute system failed, killing its lone occupant. Another fatal accident occurred in 1971 when the 3 man crew of Soyuz 11 died after an air valve opened too soon during descent.

There have also been some Soyuz landings far away from predetermined landings zones. Soyuz 23 landed well away for its target on a frozen lake and became partially submerged. Soyuz 5 encountered severe problems during reentry causing it to eventually land in Ural Mountains near Orenburg, Russia instead of Kazakhstan. Details on this mission can be found in “Soyuz 5’s Flaming Return” by Jim Oberg.

Other Soyuz missions have experienced a variety of landing anomalies – some minor, some not so minor. None the less, the Soyuz system is widely viewed as being rather reliable. However, given that the Expedition 7 crew now relies upon another Soyuz TMA as their means to get home, safety teams in both the U.S. and Russia will be analyzing this landing anomaly very closely.

Indeed, prior to the launch of Expedition 7, issues surrounding the possibility that a Soyuz might not be usable by a returning space station crew were considered by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). Specifically, the ASAP looked at what might happen if Soyuz 5S was deemed unusable and Soyuz 6S would have to be used instead, thus leaving Expedition 7 without a ride home.

Alternate Landing Soyuz Sites

Given the nature of the Soyuz recovery system, landing sites on dry land are strongly preferred. Large open flat plains are by far the best choice. Due to the inclination of Soyuz flights (and now missions to the ISS) there are not a lot of large flat areas to aim for if, for some reason, the prime sites in Kazakhstan are not available – or reachable due to some contingency. North America has large regions of flat terrain ideal for Soyuz touchdown. Of course, many of these regions are populated thus reducing their desirabilty.

Some analysis of where contingency landing zones exist for Soyuz missions can be found at Soyuz emergency landing zones – the “Ugol Pasadki” story on Sven Grahn’s website.

It is quite obvious that Russia (and before it, the Soviet Union) has long considered the possible use of North American locales for contingency landings for Soyuz spacecraft. According to the story on Grahn’s website “It is clear that the possibility of a landing outside the Soviet Union/Russia was taken into account in the planning of Soyuz/Salyut/Mir flights. The pictures below taken of the bottom of the Soyuz re-entry vehicle with plenty of English instructions for helping the crew out of the capsule show that a landing outside Russian speaking regions were foreseen as a distinct possibility.” Visitors to the National Air & Space Museum in Washington can clearly see these English phrases on Russian hardware currently on exhibition.

According to the “Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space“, signed on 22 April 1968 by the United States, Russia, and many other countries, “If, owing to accident, distress, emergency or unintended landing, the personnel of a spacecraft land in territory under the jurisdiction of a Contracting Party or have been found on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, they shall be safely and promptly returned to representatives of the launching authority.” As such, some sort of contingency plans would be required in case such a contingency presented itself.

What if a Soyuz were to land in North America? How would NASA respond?

When Columbia disintegrated during reentry, NASA was able to implement a continegcny plan and did so within minutes. This plan had been prepared well in advance of the Columbia accident – indeed, it had just recently undergone a review and revision at the direction of Sean O’Keefe.

As was the case with a Shuttle accident, NASA (in cooperation with Russia) has developed plans for what to do in case of a contingency Soyuz landing in North America. Although the entire, final plan has not been made public, we can provide, for the first time, portions of the plan under development a year or so ago.

Editor’s note: these documents are presented verbatim with the exception of telephone numbers which have been removed and replaced with [DELETED]. All documents are in PDF format.

Attachment A: Draft (English) 1.0 Soyuz Contingency Landings in US (and North America) is a draft version of a series of calls (interactions, decisions, notifications, etc.) to be made as soon as it becomes clear that a Soyuz will be making a contingency landing in North America. A table contains these calls in the time sequenced order in which they are to be made.

Attachment B: Soyuz Escape Capsule Responding Instructions is a short document, which is labeled “NOT FOR RELEASE TO MEDIA” that provides contact information for NASA and Department of Defense officials. It also contains procedures for use by search and rescue personnel or anyone else who might be the first arrive at the landing site. Included are instructions as to how to treat hardware and the series of knocks to be made on the spacecraft hatch and questions to be asked of the crew inside.

Attachment B: Soyuz Capsule Antenna Deployment HAZARD #1 contains detailed instructions of what chemical, radiological, and physical hazards to avoid on and around a the Soyuz and how to gain entry to the command module.

Attachment C: Soyuz TM (Soyuz TMA) Crew Extraction and Medical Support at a Contingency Landing Site contains procedures for medical personnel (who may not necessarily be familiar with space operations) to use in treating the Soyuz crew. Included are things to watch out for and data to be collected on each crew member.

Attachment D: Draft NASA Kennedy Space Center Soyuz Recovery Operations Plan (Continental U.S. only) December 2000 carries the caveat “This document is INCOMPLETE and still under development”. According to Section 1.2 “This document provides guidelines for SRT [Soyuz Recovery Team] operations performed by NASA-KSC and associated contractors. Details of responsibilities, operational scenarios, support equipment, and services required to prepare the Soyuz vehicle for return to Russia, are also located herein.” This document contains a detailed description of who does what, how, when, where, and why throughout initial responses to a Soyuz landing and recovery operations thereafter.

“Attachment E: Basic Guidelines on MCC-M and MCC-H tasks and responsibilities during rescue operations of the Soyuz transport vehicle crew in the event of an emergency descent on North American territory.” provides an outline of how responsibilities will be shared and/or divided between Mission Control in Houston (MCC-H) and Mission Control in Moscow (MCC-M) during and after a contingency Soyuz landing.

Attachment F: Basic Guidelines for Russian Federal Search and Rescue Department tasks and responsibilities when performing rescue operations on US territory and sequence of interaction for operation participants also provides an outline of how responsibilities will be shared and/or divided between Mission Control in Houston (MCC-H) and Mission Control in Moscow (MCC-M) during and after a contingency Soyuz landing with regard to Russian search and rescue personnel.

Attachment G: North American landing sites discussion results – this document (minus map figures) discusses some of the factors that go into selecting or avoiding certain locations in the U.S. as contingency Soyuz landing sites.

Soyuz Contingency Landing Technical Interchange Meeting 6 – 15 December 2000 NASA/Houston Texas, FINAL PROTOCOL details a wide variety of issues discussed by representatives from NASA, RSA, the U.S. Air Force, and NASA support contractors on the issues being worked so as to define the process for handling a contingency Soyuz landing in North America.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.