Soyuz TMA-01M returns to Earth (UPDATED)

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 02:57 PM, 03/15/11: Soyuz TMA-01M, with three station crew, prepped for snowy landing
  • Updated at 03:40 PM, 03/15/11: Updating re-entry timeline
  • Updated at 09:30 PM, 03/15/11: Departing Soyuz crew closes hatch, preps for undocking
  • Updated at 12:55 AM, 03/16/11: Soyuz TMA-01M undocks from space station
  • Updated at 03:10 AM, 03/16/11: Deorbit rocket firing
  • Updated at 04:45 AM, 03/16/11: Soyuz TMA-01M lands in Kazakhstan
  • Updated at 01:50 PM, 03/16/11: Adding landing photos
CBS News

Outgoing Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly, Soyuz TMA-01M commander Alexander Kaleri and flight engineer Oleg Skripochka undocked from the International Space Station Wednesday, plunged back into the atmosphere and descended to a snowy touchdown in Kazakhstan to close out 159-day mission.

Soyuz TMA-01M flight engineer Oleg Skripochka, left, commander Alexander Kaleri, center, and outgoing space station commander Scott Kelly bundle up after landing in Kazakhstan early Wednesday. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

With Kaleri at the controls in the descent module's center seat, flanked by Kelly on his right and flight engineer Skripochka to his left, the Soyuz TMA-01M undocked from the Poisk compartment atop the station's Zvezda command module at 12:27 a.m. EDT (GMT-4).

After testing repairs to the Soyuz avionics system, Kaleri monitored a four-minute 17-second rocket firing starting at 3:03:17 a.m., slowing the ship by 258 mph to begin the fall to Earth.

The Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft descends to touchdown on the snow-covered steppe of Kazakhstan. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The three modules making up the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft separated as planned just before atmospheric entry, and the central crew module carrying Kaleri, Skripochka and Kelly lined up for a fiery descent to a parachute- and rocket-assisted touchdown at 3:54 a.m. near Arkalyk in north central Kazakhstan.

(Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Braving blowing snow, brisk winds and temperatures in the 20s, Russian recovery crews and flight surgeons, along with a NASA support team, were standing by to help the station fliers out of the cramped Soyuz descent module.

"The search and recovery forces still working to extract the crew from the Soyuz capsule, which landed safely and on its side, dragging its parachute for what I would consider to be about 25 yards or so before it came to rest on its side," said NASA spokesman Rob Navias, on the scene with recovery crews in Kazakhstan. "The crew reported to be in good shape."

A few minutes later, Kaleri, Kelly and Skripochka had been pulled from the capsule and carried to reclining chairs. Grainy video from the landing site showed support crews bundling the crew members in blankets as they began their re-adaptation to gravity.

Because of the brutal winter conditions, the recovery team planned to fly the trio to nearby Kustanai for initial medical checks and a traditional Kazakh welcoming ceremony.

From there, Kelly was scheduled to fly directly back to Houston aboard a NASA aircraft while Kaleri and Skripochka were expected to head for the cosmonaut training center in Star City near Moscow for debriefing and reunions with family and friends.

Kaleri, with 770 days in space over five flights, is now the second most experienced space flier behind cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who has logged 803 days in space during six missions.

Back in orbit, Expedition 27 commander Dmitry Kondratyev, Paolo Nespoli and Catherine "Cady" Coleman will have the space station to themselves until three fresh crew members -- Alexander Samokutyaev, Andrey Borisenko and Ronald Garan -- arrive aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft.

Launch originally was planned for March 29, but the flight has been delayed to replace suspect components in the craft's communications gear.

Oleg Skripochka, left, Scott Kelly and Alexander Kaleri, right, bid their space station crewmates farewell before closing the hatch to the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft and undocking early Wednesday. (Photo: NASA TV)
The Soyuz TMA-01M was the first of a new breed of Russian crew ferry craft featuring upgraded, lightweight digital electronics and navigation gear. During launch Oct. 7 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the capsule's Neptune computer display system experienced a converter failure, resulting in dropouts from a variety of analogue instruments.

On Feb. 2, Kaleri installed replacement rate measurement units called "ammeters" to restore roll and roll rate data and wired around the failed converter to recover the necessary data displays.

Shortly after undocking Wednesday, Kaleri carried out two tests: one to check the operation of the upgraded capsule's docking control for future linkups by follow-on spacecraft and another to check out the operation of the ammeters during manual changes in the craft's orientation.

The tests appeared to go smoothly and the crew presumably had the full suite of Soyuz re-entry modes available for descent to Kazakhstan: two automatic modes and two manual modes.

But as with all Soyuz descents, Russian recovery forces were deployed to quickly assist the crew whether the Soyuz TMA-01 spacecraft followed the planned trajectory or if it landed short due to a steep, so-called ballistic descent.

In a normal descent, the orientation of the Soyuz is controlled to provide more lift, allowing the spacecraft to fly farther down range and subjecting the crew to less extreme braking forces. In a ballistic entry, lift is not adjusted, the capsule is spun up for stability and it rifles back to Earth on a steeper trajectory, subjecting the crew to more severe deceleration.

Back-to-back Soyuz re-entries on Oct. 21, 2007, and April 19, 2008, ended with ballistic descents because of module separation problems. All re-entries since then, including Wednesday's, followed the normal, less-stressful trajectory.

Scott Kelly wears a blue wristband to show support for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wife of twin brother Mark Kelly. Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was shot in the head in January. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Kelly had a challenging stay in orbit, overseeing the arrival of Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships, arrival of the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft carrying Kondratyev, Nespoli and Coleman and a visit by shuttle Discovery, which delivered a final U.S. module to the station.

Kelly heard from afar about an attack on his twin brother Mark Kelly's wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in Tucson in January.

Offering a "moment of silence" Jan. 10 to remember the victims of the shooting spree, Scott Kelly said "we have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station."

"As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful," he said. "Unfortunately, it is not. These days, we're constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions but also with our irresponsible words. We are better than this. We must do better."

During a brief change-of-command ceremony aboard the station Monday, Kelly said "we'll miss this place, but we look forward to getting back to Earth."

"It's a real honor and a privilege for me to have been in command of this really miraculous facility for oh, several months now," he said. "If you could see this place in person, it really is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing engineering achievements that people have accomplished.

"If we can build something like this, we can meet any challenge and we certainly have challenges back on Earth, and we recognize that. Our hearts go out to our partners in Japan that have suffered greatly. We really feel for them and know they will recover from this. The Japanese people are very, very resilient."

With the retirement of the space shuttle after two final missions, NASA will rely on Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S., European, Canadian and Japanese astronauts to and from the International Space Station until new commercial rockets and spacecraft are designed, built and tested.

NASA officials Monday announced an extension to the agency's existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency covering crew transportation, rescue and related services from 2014 through June 2016. The contract is valued at $753 million and covers launch-through-landing support for 12 astronauts. That works out to $62.75 million per seat.

Here is a timeline of the major re-entry events (in EDT and mission elapsed time):

09:44:00 PM...159...02...33...05...Sunrise at landing site
11:10:00 PM...159...03...59...05...US to Russian motion control handover
11:33:00 PM...159...04...22...05...ISS maneuver to undocking attitude

12:00:54 AM...159...04...49...59...Sunrise
12:23:00 AM...159...05...12...05...ISS to free drift
12:23:16 AM...159...05...12...21...Daily Orbit 15 Russian ground station AOS
12:24:00 AM...159...05...13...05...Undock Command
12:27:00 AM...159...05...16...05...Physical separation/Hooks open
12:27:30 AM...159...05...16...35...Crew activation of avionics gear for test
12:29:00 AM...159...05...18...05...Manual Soyuz sparation burn #1
12:29:00 AM...159...05...18...05...Maneuver to test attitude LVLH
12:30:15 AM...159...05...19...20...Stationkeeping for test (range: 50 meters)
12:31:00 AM...159...05...20...05...Avionics test start
12:36:00 AM...159...05...25...05...Manual Soyuz separation burn #2
12:37:00 AM...159...05...26...05...Crew avionics activation (range: 100 meters)
12:37:30 AM...159...05...26...35...Test/ammeters start (range: 120 meters)
12:46:52 AM...159...05...35...57...Daily Orbit 15 Russian ground station LOS
12:50:00 AM...159...05...39...05...ISS maneuver to duty attitude
01:02:57 AM...159...05...52...02...Sunset
01:41:00 AM...159...06...30...05...Russian to US motion control handover
03:03:17 AM...159...07...52...22...Soyuz deorbit burn start (115.2 m/s)
03:04:11 AM...159...07...53...16...Sunrise
03:07:34 AM...159...07...56...39...Deorbit burn complete
03:27:57 AM...159...08...17...02...Separation of modules (140.0 km altitude)
03:30:50 AM...159...08...19...55...Atmospheric entry (102.3 km altitude)
03:32:36 AM...159...08...21...41...Entry guidance start (80.5 km altitude)
03:37:27 AM...159...08...26...32...Maximum G-load (33.7 km altitude)
03:39:23 AM...159...08...28...28...Command to open parachute (10.6 km altitude)
03:53:43 AM...159...08...42...48...Landing
For readers interested in additional background on the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft, here's an overview from a NASA briefing package:

The Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft is the first to incorporate both newer, more powerful computer avionics systems and new digital displays for use by the crew. The new computer systems will allow the Soyuz computers to interface with the onboard computers in the Russian On-Orbit Segment of the station once docking is complete, allowing continuous monitoring of the Soyuz by Mission Control in Moscow.

Both Soyuz 19 and Soyuz 22 incorporated the new digital “Neptune” display panels, and seven Progress resupply vehicles have used the new avionics computer systems. The Soyuz TMA-01M vehicle integrates those systems. The majority of updated components are housed in the Soyuz instrumentation module.

For launch, the new avionics systems reduce the weight of the spacecraft by approximately 150 pounds (70 kilograms), which allows a small increase in cargo-carrying capacity. Soyuz spacecraft are capable of carrying a limited amount of supplies for the crew’s use. This will increase the weight of supplies the spacecraft is capable of carrying, but will not provide any additional volume for bulky items.

Once on orbit, the new digital data communications system will simplify life for the crew. Previous versions of the spacecraft, including both the Soyuz TM, which was used from 1986 to 2002, and the Soyuz TMA in use since 2002, required Mission Control Moscow to turn on the Soyuz computer systems periodically so that a partial set of parameters on the health of the vehicle could be downlinked for review. In addition, crew members were required to manually input undocking and deorbit data parameters to ensure the Soyuz was ready for an undocking and landing. The new system will eliminate the need for the crew to perform these checks and data updates, with Mission Control in Moscow uplinking the updates through the station’s computer system.

The updates required some structural modifications to the Soyuz, including the installation of cold plates and an improved thermal system pump capable of rejecting the additional head generated by the new computer systems.

The majority of Soyuz TMA systems remain unchanged. In use since 2002, the TMA increases safety, especially in descent and landing. It has smaller and more efficient computers and improved displays. In addition, the Soyuz TMA accommodates individuals as large as 1.9 meters (6 feet, 3 inches) tall and 95 kilograms (209 pounds), compared to 1.8 meters (6 feet) and 85 kilograms (187 pounds) in the earlier TM. Minimum crew member size for the TMA is 1.5 meters (4 feet, 11 inches) and 50 kilograms (110 pounds), compared to 1.6 meters (5 feet, 4 inches) and 56 kilograms (123 pounds) for the TM.

Two new engines reduce landing speed and forces felt by crew members by 15 to 30 percent and a new entry control system and three-axis accelerometer increase landing accuracy. Instrumentation improvements include a color “glass cockpit,” which is easier to use and gives the crew more information, with hand controllers that can be secured under an instrument panel. All the new components in the Soyuz TMA can spend up to one year in space.

New components and the entire TMA were rigorously tested on the ground, in hangar-drop tests, in airdrop tests and in space before the spacecraft was declared flight-ready. For example, the accelerometer and associated software, as well as modified boosters (incorporated to cope with the TMA’s additional mass), were tested on flights of Progress unpiloted supply spacecraft, while the new cooling system was tested on two Soyuz TM flights.

Descent module structural modifications, seats and seat shock absorbers were tested in hangar drop tests. Landing system modifications, including associated software upgrades, were tested in a series of air drop tests. Additionally, extensive tests of systems and components were conducted on the ground.