How to Leave Space and (Safely) Crash Back Down to Earth

I liken the experience of landing in a space shuttle to a nice, smooth Air Force landing. But let’s go back to EI (400,000 feet above Earth’s surface) and switch our narrative over to the Soyuz, because there are other adjectives to describe that experience. If coming back to Earth in the shuttle is like riding an airliner, being in the Soyuz is like riding a bowling ball.

space capsule landing in a field with the parachute open
The Russian Soyuz TMA-15M space capsule carrying the International Space Station crew of Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti lands in a remote area outside the town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on June 11, 2015.Photograph: IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images

The first noticeable difference was shortly after EI as we reentered the atmosphere. This time it occurred in daylight. Capsules like the Soyuz, Apollo, SpaceX Dragon, and Boeing CST-100 all use bank angle just like an airplane does to turn, though much less effectively. While the shuttle had a cross-range of more than 1,000 miles, a capsule returning from orbit can typically turn only 50 miles to the left or right. As we were zooming over Africa, we banked to the right, and when I looked out the hatch at the ground below, we were moving fast! You don’t notice your speed up in orbit, 250 miles above the planet, but by this time we were only about 50 miles above the deserts and mountains, and still zooming by at several miles per second. It was so impressive that I scribbled a few unintelligible notes to myself on my kneeboard, trying to draw my fleeting view while scrunched up in that tiny capsule and bulky spacesuit.

The actual EI phase was also quite a bit different. Although I saw the same red/orange/pink glow out my window, the Soyuz was much more violent. First of all, the Soyuz separated into three parts with a giant bang minutes before EI: an empty orbital module, the descent module where we were, and an unmanned service module. After hitting the atmosphere, the external Soyuz heat blanket burned off. I had never been in a flying vehicle that was literally ripping apart while I was flying it, but thankfully this was per design. The thought ‘I hope this disintegration eventually stops‘ did cross my mind, but there was nothing I could do in either case. There were constant banging and ripping noises as I watched pieces of the blanket (and who knows what else) fly by my window. Then came the parachute. We had had a briefing by crewmates who had done this before, and they basically said, “You’re going to think you’re going to die, but don’t worry, you won’t.” And you know what? It felt like we were going to die. But, thanks to the briefing, Samantha Cristoforetti, my Italian crewmate, Anton Shkaplerov, my Russian crewmate and Soyuz commander, and I had a blast when the drogue chute came out. We were hooting and hollering and yelling in Russian, “Rooskiy gorkiy!” Which means “crazy roller coaster!” In the F-16 community, we would have called this phase of flight “Mr. Toad’s wild ride.” The tumbling lasted a few minutes until the main parachute finally deployed and we were stable and calm, back at one g.

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Next came the waiting, as we slowly descended the remaining few thousand feet to the Kazakh Steppe. Just when things seemed to be smoothing out, the seat violently raised itself lifting about a foot up from the bottom of the spacecraft. This allowed a shock-absorber device to cushion the impact a bit. Each crewmember has his own couch, form-fitted to his body; mine had been cast about two years prior, at the Energia factory near Moscow. During that procedure, you put on white long underwear to cover all of your skin and get lowered by a crane down into wet plaster. When it finally sets they pull you out, and voilà, you have a seat liner that is molded for your body. As the Russian technicians finish this seat, they manually carve out extra room above the top of your helmet area, and I used every bit of it. On Earth I fit without a problem, but after 200 days in space I had grown a few inches and the top of my head was butted up against the top of the seat liner.