After the space shuttle disaster, three survivors had no safe way home

March 19 2007


After the space shuttle disaster, three survivors had no safe way home

March 19 2007


After the space shuttle disaster, three survivors had no safe way home


When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the skies over Texas on Feb. 1,2003, killing the seven crew members on board, three men were left marooned on the International Space Station. With the shuttle fleet grounded, mission controls in Houston and Moscow had no way to bring home American astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit, and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin. No way, that is, except for a cramped Soyuz capside latched to the station. Despite intense misgivings—NASA thought Soyuz technology was archaic, and was appalled that this particular model had never been tested—the Americans had no choice but to agree. On May 3, the three men took off with Budarin at the controls. It was not, as Chris Jones’s riveting accountToo Far From Home (Anansi) relates, a textbook re-entry:

‘LOOK AT THAT FIRE,” Bowersox said.

He and Pettit each saw the lost modules roll out past their windows and begin burning up. They were glad for not having been in them. But they didn’t know there was still reason for concern. They didn’t know that were everything in order, they wouldn’t have been able to see what they saw. They didn’t know that one of the small rockets assigned to keep their capsule stable had fired less than a second too late.

And then their own windows filled with plasma and fire.

“There’s so much fire,” Bowersox said, filled with wonder.

“Yes,” Budarin replied, sounding distracted. He knew that some fire was normal, a product of the heat generated by re-entry, the capsule trailing it like a meteor’s tail. But even for Budarin, the fire seemed brighter than normal, more intense. It might have been his imagination, but the temperature inside Soyuz also seemed on the rise. Sweat started to run into his eyes. Blinking it back and turning his head to sneak a peek through one of the windows, he said, almost to himself, “Yes, we are on fire pretty good.”

Bowersox and Pettit both marvelled at the glow. But in his concern, Budarin had grown deaf to their awe. He was scanning the instruments and gauges, one by one, trying to find something, anything, that wasn’t right. Suddenly, his eyes grew wide when a monitor flashed in front of him, and a telltale lightcalled, ominously, the BS light—blinked on.

Bowersox saw it, too. Uh-oh, he thought.

Holy f-king shit was more like it.

The computers had announced that whether Expedition Six liked it or not, Soyuz was about to be pushed into a steep, ballistic descent. Instead of the usual semi-gentle fall into gravity’s embrace, they were primed to enter an accelerated, lung-crunching dive into elementary physics. There was no longer time for grace. For whatever reason, the hardware wanted them home, as soon as possible. It was as though the three men had been loaded into a shotgun and fired straight into the earth.

In English, Bowersox gave Pettit the red alert. “Don, BS is lit up, and we don’t know why,” he said. Resorting to his typical understatement, he added, “It’s probably going to be a fairly aggressive entry.”

Budarin noticed that something was wrong with the capsule’s left side.

“I didn’t touch anything,” Bowersox said.

Pettit, unable to ignore the hint of anxiety that Bowersox had failed to stifle during his self-defence, began to worry out loud. “Why the BS?” he asked in Russian.

Perhaps because of the stress of the moment, Bowersox replied to him in kind. “We don’t know, Don,” he said, before switching over to English. “Tighten up your belts as much as you can.”

The three men began tugging on their restraints, trying to find safe places for all of the loose things that were about to turn into projectiles.

“We’ll make it, guys,” Budarin said.

“Kolai, you’re good,” Bowersox replied.

“Guys,” Budarin said, trying to stay focused on the instruments in front of him through a growing shake. “Hold on, guys, hold on.”

NASA CHIEF Sean O’Keefe arrived at mission control, along with Micki Pettit and Annie Bowersox, looking excited and put together, what with Micki wearing her snappy hat. Only Marina Budarin, obedient to Russian custom—it was the worst kind of luck for a wife to wait for a cosmonaut’s landing—was absent. The two American women took their seats near O’Keefe, and he turned to smile at them. Returning the smile, Micki and Annie leaned forward to get a better look down at the floor of technicians below.

“CAN YOU HEAR US?” Budarin repeated again and again. But there was no response from the ground. Expedition Six were alone.

Budarin’s breathing grew harder. “Tighten up as much as you can,” he said through gritted teeth.

Bowersox licked his lips. Pettit closed his


Budarin had levelled his sights to a single gauge in front of him, the needle in it bouncing and rising slowly, recording the G-forces that had begun to sit on their chests like barbells.

“We’re at 2.0,” Budarin said, a little nervously, “2.3... Hold on guys.”

“We’re holding on,” Bowersox said in Russian. And then, in English, he said to Don:

“Take a deep breath while you can.”

The capsule had begun to spin. There was noise, snaps and rattles and groans, and vibration, each rising in pitch. Outside, fire and plasma danced, coating windows with ash. Alarm bells went off, if only in their minds.

“Don, how are you?” Budarin asked. “Speak so we can hear you.”

“Da,” Don said.

Budarin continued the count.“... 3.0... 3.5 ... 3-9 • • • Don, speak to me, say something to me.”

“Da,” Don said again, this time croaking it out.

Their spines compressed. Their ears rang. Pettit could feel sweat streaming back from his forehead and soaking his hair, as though he were in a centrifuge. Bowersox fought to keep his tongue from slipping down his throat.

“... 4.0... 4-35 • • • 4.44... 4-7... oh, it’s pressing good.”

Already, nearly a 1,000 lb. sat on each of their chests, and things were only getting worse. With every second it grew harder and harder for them to breathe, their gasps already short and shallow. It took everything in Budarin for him to continue to talk.

“...5.0... 6.0...”

They approached the G-force limits that the human body, if left in a vulnerable position, can survive for any length of time. After nearly six months in space, weightless and free, for this brave trio it felt like torture, as though some maniac wanted to see how far he could push them before they finally broke in half. Budarin continued to talk, but soon his audience had trouble listening. So much blood had been pushed to the backs of their brains that Bowersox and Pettit felt as though they had been sucker-punched. Were they not already flat on their backs, they would have been knocked there.

“ ... 7.0... 75 ••• 79... 8.0... ”

Now Expedition Six had reached an almost mythical number. Several racetracks have been redesigned because drivers in their new, faster cars have reached 5.0 in the corners and risked passing out and crashing. At 8.0, Bowersox, Budarin, and Pettit were sustaining an occasionally lethal level of crush, one that threatened to pinch their weakened lungs shut tight. They couldn’t have been blamed if they had panicked. This was one more surprise that they could have done without.

Fortunately, inevitably, Soyuz continued its fall through the atmosphere. Warmer, denser air began slowing them down, and right when they needed it to, the weight began to lift.

“ ... 7.6 ... 7-5 ... 7.1... 6.5 .. • It’s great,” Budarin wheezed,

“... 4-3 ••• 3-5 •• • 3-11... 2.8... 2.2... 1.7... ”

Bowersox and Pettit blinked back their fogs. Their blood began rising back into their faces, their tongues meeting their unclenching teeth. They took great, gulping breaths, as though a bully had just taken his foot off their necks. Most important, they even found it in them to smile, having passed one more test, but with more to come.

“Don, get ready for the parachute,” Bowersox said. “Okay,” Pettit said, weakly. “It’s easy now,” Budarin

said. “Now we’ll have fun again.”

Bowersox, however, wasn’t yet thinking about spreading out a blanket in the sunshine. Instead, he was busy pouring all of his might into willing the parachute to open. By the book, it was part of the Soyuz’s automated operation, and he bristled at the lack of control—not just the pilot in him but the hardened realist in him who had survived one malfunction and didn’t fancy his chances of surviving another.

Just then, the small drogue chute opened, filling with air. But the huge main chute didn’t follow its lead. The pyrotechnic bolts that kept it folded tight still hadn’t fired. Bowersox shook his head. He wished for a huge red button to appear in front of him that he could press, hard, and more than once, to release the parachute. But there wasn’t one. There was just the cruel wait, while Expedition Six continued racing toward the cold, hard earth. The gauges showed the capsule was travelling more slowly than it had been, but when it comes to falling out of the sky, pace is a relative thing. The three men were still going plenty fast enough to dig their own graves.

IN MOSCOW, where officials anticipated Soyuz to make its gentle touchdown within 16 minutes—how close to home Columbia had been when it was lost for good—the radios came back to life just in time to broadcast a short, loud blast of static. Then the radios crackled, and then they went dead.

In the silence, a few of the technicians put their faces into their hands. A few of the others looked snow white.

Because sometimes, bad things can happen twice.

The Americans in the gallery weren’t all that alarmed by the stern masks suddenly put on by their Russian colleagues. Nor were they unsettled by the tense quiet or by the occasional arrival of a harried-looking subordinate, whispering into the ears of one superior or another.

Locked away in this great room in the dark, and unable to speak Russian or make out the whispers, they had been dunked into a kind of isolation tank. They were oblivious to the possibility that three of the principal parts were being played by fire and smoke and ash. Finally, O’Keefe, Micki and Annie saw the screens at the front of the room fill with grainy colour footage of a Soyuz capsule thumping into the steppes, kicking up dirt. Its orangeand-white parachute rolled out in front of it in a gentle breeze, flapping like a deflated hot-air balloon, and within minutes, soldiers and technicians huddled in helicopters had spotted it and touched down nearby. The film, in essence, showed a textbook landing and recovery unfolding. In the balcony, there was relief. All that remained was the cracking of the hatch.

But suddenly an open radio transmission that had been playing for the assembled crowd, which now included a number of Russian reporters, crackled with the concerned voices of search pilots who hadn’t yet caught sight of Expedition Six’s parachute. The Americans were confused by the seeming discrepancy between what they were seeing in front of them and what they were hearing through the radio. And then it dawned on them—not quite all at once, but instantaneously enough for a feeling of dread to spread like a virus through the balcony gang—that the footage that they had been watching was stock.

Just then, there was a buzz among the Russians, some of whom had begun to sweat. When they weren’t listening to the radio, they spoke mostly in hushes. They weren’t speaking in hushes anymore. Finally, after 10 minutes, O’Keefe’s Russian counterpart Yuri Koptev told O’Keefe that the pilots hadn’t seen the parachute because Soyuz had overshot its landing site by a few kilometers. No doubt it would be spotted presently.

For the Americans, the uncertainty was bewildering at first and made them feel sick second. When everything goes according to plan, Soyuz lands in an area precise enough for rescue teams to see its parachute open.

This time around, there had been no sighting. There was only an empty sky. M

From Too Far From Home by Chris Jones; reprinted by permission of House ofAnansi.