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Astronauts upbeat after hard 'ballistic' landing
by Staff Writers
Star City, Russia (AFP) April 21, 2008

The first South Korean in space together with the American and a Russian who accompanied her said on Monday they were recovering well after a gruelling "ballistic" descent to Earth.

Yi So-Yeon, who returned from the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday in an irregular landing that subjected the crew to huge gravitational forces, said there had been nothing to worry about either during take-off or landing.

"It's really, really safe and really comfortable because all the cosmonauts helped me so much," said Yi at a press conference at the Star City astronaut training centre after returning from nine days aboard the ISS.

"During the descent I saw some kind of fire outside because we were going through the atmosphere," she said, referring to the burning which the Soyuz rocket capsule is built to withstand as it enters the Earth's atmosphere.

"After a while I could feel it was not even warm even though outside it was really fire," she said, turning to her fellow crew members, NASA's Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko.

Russian space officials began an enquiry on Monday into why the Soyuz, long considered a reliable workhorse for human space travel, had deviated from its landing pattern, after two similar incidents in recent years.

Whitson, the first ever female commander of the space station, had to be supported under one arm as she arrived and left the news conference, but attributed this to the more demanding period she had spent in space -- a full six months, her second such tour of duty.

"I don't know that I have any specific consequences of the descent. I'm feeling much better every day.... I feel a little bit weaker in the sense of muscle weakness. Last time I felt very strong after landing.

"I'm confident I'll be able to recover," said Whitson, who has clocked up 377 days in space overall, the most of any US astronaut.

Malenchenko said the astronauts had been able to climb unaided from the capsule when they made their landing on the snowy Kazakh steppe more than 400 kilometres (248 miles) off target -- to the bemusement of a local mayor and residents who drove out to meet them.

"They were very surprised. One of them asked if it was a boat," said Malenchenko.

"When we said we'd come from space... they didn't understand," he said.

The three are going through a recuperation period and de-briefings at Star City before returning home.

The training centre's deputy head, Valery Korzun, told journalists that preliminary findings suggested the crew were not to blame for Saturday's unusual landing.

"While descending into the Earth's atmosphere the spacecraft automatically switched from a controlled descent to a ballistic landing. The reason is being analysed and conclusions will be drawn, which could include changes to training and improvements to equipment.

"Judging from preliminary analysis the crew acted in accordance with the demands of the situation," he said.

Yi has said she hopes her journey will inspire South Korea to greater space endeavours and even help bring reconciliation on the divided Korean peninsular.

One of the space station's main purposes is as a test ground for more ambitious human expeditions to the Moon or Mars.


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