A Russian cosmonaut and two American astronauts returned to Earth last month, landing in Central Kazakhstan aboard the Soyuz re-entry vehicle. VOA correspondent Valer Gergely visited the landing site to join the latest recovery mission of the Russian Federal Space Agency's Search and Recovery Unit. Jim Bertel narrates.
It seems a typical weekend in Zheskasgan. A concrete sign, advertising the city's heavy industry, could as well be a "just married" sign, as young couples customarily gather here to celebrate their wedding day. In the town, folks are busy with their everyday lives - paying little attention to the sky.
Meanwhile 350 kilometers above Zheskasgan, the International Space Station crew completes its final check of the Soyuz spacecraft to ensure the safe return of flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin, science officer Michael Allegria and space tourist Charles Simonyi. After their farewell, the Soyuz undocks and slowly departs the ISS.
Zheskasgan cannot conceal its connection to space. Street signs and murals saluting the first Russian cosmonaut are reminders that the region has been the official Soyuz vehicle-landing site since the 1960s. Citizens of the city take pride in the fact that their region is also a land of international cooperation.
On proud citizen says, "I am very glad because it is happening close to our city and we can talk freely to people from other countries."
Another commented, "We have to have a better understanding of each other, we have to broaden our horizon."
On the Soyuz all systems function well during the de-orbit burn and the separation of the command module containing the returning crew.
In Zheskasgan, when recovery mission leader Alexei Lukyanov receives the precise landing coordinates from the Russian Command Center, the air and space rescue operation team begins to deploy its specialized vehicles 150 kilometers from the city.
Ten helicopters from the Karaganda air base, 300 kilometers from the landing site, join the land-based operation. Major Sergei Sergeyev says his team continuously checks the weather conditions and the area for a safe landing.
"In our team everyone has his own task, but we can replace each other. We are now at the exact calculated landing site. We capture the short- and ultra-shortwave radio signal of the Soyuz capsule and go to the landing site. It may land on the right or left because of the wind."
As it happened, the landing was delayed and moved to the south because of wet ground conditions due to melting snow on the Kazakh steppes. "We stay in permanent contact with the Flight Command Center in Moscow, the Navigation Center in Arkalyk and the Control Center in Zheskasgan."
After the pilot chute, the main parachute opens to slow down the descent of the Soyuz. Before landing, retro rockets fire to soften the touchdown. The recovery team sets up a security perimeter and then opens the hatch. With U.S. astronauts onboard, NASA officials observe the landing.
"The capsule often lands on its side, bumps a bit and if there is wind, the parachute may tend to drag it on its side," said NASA's Rob Navias.
He sends his report on the condition of the crew members via satellite phone to NASA headquarters, while the support team helps the crew exit the vehicle.
"The medical doctors confirmed that the astronauts are in excellent shape while they readapt to Earth gravity in the first few minutes in their reclining chairs."
The astronauts relax a few minutes before boarding helicopters to fly to Karaganda, where Mayor Islam Togaybayev welcomes the astronauts and presents them with the traditional Kazakh souvenirs and costumes.
Tyurin and Allegria feel it is beneficial to work with people from other countries as they bring fresh ideas from their fields of expertise. Tyurin says, "We have learned from each other. Our space program will benefit from this kind of cooperation." Allegria adds, "I don't want to compare my colleagues, they are different, but very good people, all of them have different qualities."
The United States has been involved in Soyuz landings for the past four years.
Navias remarks the operation went as planned. "The Russian Federal Space Agency has been magnificent. This is a textbook operation. The international cooperation is almost like a symphony. It's a magnificent demonstration of what nations with the will, the fortitude, and the capability can do when they work together."
At the end of the day the crewmembers fly back to the cosmonaut-training complex in Star City, Russia, to reunite with family and friends. And the people of Zheskasgan look forward to the continuation of the space flights servicing the ISS.