Perfect landing of Soyuz TMA-3
The Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying three departing space station astronauts landed in Kazakhstan at 00:09 GMT April 30 early morning, capping the 195-day mission by the Expedition 8 crew of Michael Foale and Alexander Kaleri and the 11-day voyage by ESA researcher Andre Kuipers.
The whole landing sequence was followed without a deviation to demonstrate a perfect coordination between the crew, flight controllers in the Russian Mission control Center in Korolev and the S&R force deployed in the Kazakhstan steppe.
Earlier in the day about three hours before undocking, Foale, Kaleri and Kuipers bid farewell to the new Expedition 9 crew, Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineer Mike Fincke. The departing crew climbed into the Soyuz vehicle, closing the hatch between Soyuz and Pirs. Kuipers was seated in the Soyuz' left seat to be the flight engineer for entry and landing. Kaleri was in the center commander's seat, and Foale occupied the right seat.
After activating Soyuz systems and getting approval from Russian flight controllers at the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev at 20:52 GMT Kaleri sent commands to open hooks and latches between Soyuz and Pirs which held the craft together since the Soyuz' arrival last year on October 20.
A little less than 2.5 hours later (at 23:20:03), at a distance of about 19 kilometers from the ISS, Soyuz computers initiated a deorbit burn braking maneuver of about 4.5 minutes in duration to slow the spacecraft and enable it to drop out of orbit to begin its re-entry to Earth.
The Descent Module's computers oriented the capsule with its ablative heat shield pointing forward to repel the buildup of heat as it plunged into the atmosphere (at 23:48:18). The crew felt the first effects of gravity in almost six months at the point called Entry Interface, when the module was about 120 km above the Earth, about three minutes after module separation.
About eight minutes later (at 23:56:51) at an altitude of about 10 kilometers, traveling at about 220 meters per second, the Soyuz' computers began a commanded sequence for the deployment of the capsule's parachutes. First, two "pilot" parachutes were deployed, extracting a larger drogue parachute, which stretched out over an area of 24 square meters. Within 16 seconds, the Soyuz's descent slowed to about 80 meters per second.
Within minutes, at an altitude of a little more than 5 kilometers, the crew monitored the jettison of the Descent Module's heat shield, which was followed by the termination of the aerodynamic spin cycle and the dumping of any residual propellant from the Soyuz. Computers also armed the module's seat shock absorbers in preparation for landing.
Soon after that the S&R helicopters in Kazakhstan spotted the descending Soyuz and established a comm link with the crew. Commander Padalka reported that the crew status was absolutely fine.
With the jettisoning of the capsule's heat shield, the Soyuz altimeter was exposed to the surface of the Earth. Using a reflector system, signals are bounced to the ground from the Soyuz and reflected back, providing the capsule's computers updated information on altitude and rate of descent.
At an altitude of about 12 meters, cockpit displays told Kaleri to prepare for the Soft Landing Engine firing. Just one meter above the surface, and just seconds before touchdown, the six solid propellant engines fired in a final braking maneuver, enabling the Soyuz to land to complete its mission at 00:09 GMT (and two second earlier than the nominal landing time shown in the MCC landing forecast), settling down at a velocity of about 1.5 meters per second.
Once the capsule touched down, the helicopters will land nearby to begin the removal of the crew. The recorded footage of the crew extraction operation was later played on the big screen in the Mission Control.
Within two hours after landing, the crew was assisted to the helicopters for a flight back to a recovery staging site in Kazakhstan. The crew then boarded a CTC jet to be flown back to the Chkalovski Airfield near Star City where their families, officials from FSA, ESA, NASA guests and the press met them at about 08:00 GMT. In all, it took about eight hours between landing and return to Star City.