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Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC
Permission previously granted by Houston Chronicle
May 7, 2003, 10:05AM

Soyuz crew denies it caused hair-raising plunge to Earth

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau 

WASHINGTON -- The former crewmen of the international space station
denied Tuesday that they hit the wrong button in the Russian Soyuz
spacecraft as it plunged to Earth last weekend in a rough, screaming
descent that pushed their tongues back into their throats and landed
their capsule nearly 300 miles off target in the Kazak steppe. 
"There is a button and it was covered. I double-checked that because
that's always the first thing you worry about," American astronaut Ken
Bowersox said in Star City, Russia. "You can never say for sure you
didn't make a mistake. However, we didn't see any sign on board that we
made any errors." 
Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin confirmed that, saying the space
capsule had been set on automatic and the three-man crew, which also
included American Don Pettit, did nothing to change that. 
"It's for the specialists to figure out what was the cause," he said in
Russian. "Let's wait and see, but for now I can say that it was not our
own doing." 
Earlier this week, space experts in Russia suggested that a button may
have been pressed inadvertently, causing the guidance computer to switch
from a normal entry to a ballistic one that subjected the men to eight
times the force of gravity. That's twice the normal amount for a Soyuz
landing and three times what American astronauts are accustomed to in
space shuttle returns. 
The dramatic, off-course landing and communications problems resulted in
a tense two-hour wait before the spacemen's families knew they had made
it down safely. The landing was the first since space shuttle Columbia
broke up on re-entry over Texas on Feb. 1, killing seven astronauts. 
On Tuesday, Melissa Motichek, a spokeswoman at NASA's Washington
headquarters, acknowledged that there also has been speculation that a
glitch in the guidance computer software in the new-model Soyuz could be
to blame for the rough entry. 
If that is the case, it should be easy to repair before the two new
occupants of the space station use another Soyuz to come home in the
fall. The Soyuz is the only vehicle capable of ferrying people to and
from the space station while the U.S. shuttle fleet is grounded. 
But Motichek cautioned that no cause for the steep re-entry has been
pinpointed. She said the capsule has been shipped to Energia, the
company that built it, so investigators can examine its data recorders. 
Whatever the cause of their wild ride home -- the first for U.S.
astronauts aboard a Russian capsule -- the men said they were thrilled
to crawl out of the spacecraft, to breathe fresh air and take in the
beauty of their surroundings after spending 5 1/2 months aboard the
space station. 
Pettit, a rookie spaceman who was the weakest upon his return because of
muscle and bone deterioration from living in space, said he had been
dreading the "mob scene" that would greet them on landing and was glad
the off-course touchdown on Sunday morning Russian time afforded him
some privacy. 
"I was actually relieved to ooze out of the spacecraft and lay on Mother
Earth and have a solitude moment in which to get reacquainted," he said.

He said the G forces on descent made him feel "like I was Atlas and I
had the whole weight of the world on my shoulders." 
Bowersox, a former test pilot, said the landing was "easier than I
thought it was going to be, but there's a lot of pressure on your chest.
It's hard to breathe and your tongue sort of slips back in your head and
toward the back of your throat." 
Earlier, Bowersox, talking with his family and colleagues as a NASA
camera crew followed them around, recalled that Budarin let out a
thrilled whoop when the gravitational forces hit, while the Americans
strained against the G's, yelling, "Aaaugh, aaaugh!" 
"It was quite an experience," he said. 
On Tuesday, Budarin explained that the rough landing, the crew's
transition from weightlessness to gravity and antenna problems on the
ground delayed their ability to report their safe arrival. 
After Budarin popped the hatch, the three crawled out of the capsule,
and lay on their backs enjoying breathing in the fresh air. It was about
1 1/2 hours, he said, before they were able to get off their knees and
Meanwhile, he said, Bowersox had struggled out of his spacesuit and
crawled back into the craft to retrieve a NASA radio to call rescuers.
Still, the signal was weak, Budarin said. 
Two hours after their landing, the men made contact, and two hours after
that, they were picked up. 
The men used the extra time to soak in the scenery, which Bowersox
described as "gorgeous." Now that he's on the ground, he said, he
appreciates "small things differently -- rainy days and blue skies and
Asked how the delay affected their wives and families, who were
nervously awaiting the men's arrival with the Columbia disaster fresh in
mind, Pettit hesitated, clammed up, and finally passed the microphone to
his commander without answering. 
"Well, let's talk about how great it was to see them," Bowersox said.
"They had tears in their eyes and I could tell they were very happy to
see us. 
"And we were very happy to see them." 

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