NASA not worried about Soyuz space capsule's bumpy ride home

By: By SETH BORENSTEIN
By: By SETH BORENSTEIN


WASHINGTON (AP) -- NASA isn't too worried about the Soyuz space capsule's wayward ride home over the weekend, saying Tuesday that the Russians have got a handle on it.

This was the second straight off-course landing for a Soyuz capsule returning from the international space station. A Russian space official told the Russian news agency Interfax that the crew of three- including American Peggy Whitson - was in serious danger during the descent.

But NASA associate administrator for space operations William H. Gerstenmaier downplayed such alarm. NASA wasn't aware of any danger for the crew although it didn't ask if the crew was at risk, Gerstenmaier said in a Tuesday news teleconference.

"I don't see this as a major problem," Gerstenmaier said in NASA's first comments about the landing. "But it's clearly something that should not have occurred."

Saturday's bone-jarring landing happened after the capsule went into an unplanned ballistic re-entry. The Russians thought they had solved the descent problem after it cropped up last October and NASA agreed with their original analysis that a frayed wire was to blame, Gerstenmaier said.

However, the ship that landed Saturday was inspected in orbit and didn't have frayed wiring, he said, acknowledging that the original investigation went wrong.

"We may have missed the probable cause," Gerstenmaier said.

Still, NASA is satisfied with the way Russia is handling the mishap and hasn't asked to be part of the investigation, he said.

"I have complete confidence in what the Russians are doing. They were very concerned about this," he said. "They treated this with the same diligence as we would in the United States."

But when NASA officials testify about the international space station on Thursday they will be grilled about the incident.

"I'm obviously concerned anytime a human space flight mission doesn't go as planned. We need to get more information about what happened and why, as well as what will be done to keep it from happening again," said House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.

Gerstenmaier, who was at Moscow Mission Control when the Soyuz landed 300 miles off-course in Kazakhstan, relayed a little bit about what happened. After the landing, it took a half hour before Soyuz flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko called Moscow on a satellite phone to say they were OK. But no one was worried because it often takes an entire hour for this to occur, he said.

Malenchenko "detected some smoke in the cabin," Gerstenmaier said. Then the NASA official added that it was "maybe not smoke, but actually the smell of burning materials" and that is not uncommon.

The crew was subjected to gravity forces of about eight times Earth's gravity for up to two minutes, he said. Normal Soyuz returns have G-forces of about five, NASA said.

They felt "a kind of general jostling in their seats that they have not felt before," Gerstenmaier said.

Alexander Vorobyov, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Space Agency, said it was common for a Soyuz hatch and antenna to have heat damage during re-entry. He said investigators classified it as three on a five-point scale.

On Monday, South Korea's first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, the third member of the crew, said during a news conference at the Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow that she was frightened during the descent.

"At first I was really scared because it looked really, really hot and I thought we could burn," she said.

The NASA official emphasized how reliable Soyuz ships have been. It serves as the emergency escape ship for the international space station and will be NASA's only mode of space transport for several years after the 2010 scheduled retirement of the space shuttle fleet.

"We need not to overreact to this," Gerstenmaier said.

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Associated Press Writer Mike Eckel contributed to this report from Moscow.

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