The Perils of Landing
Why astronauts are given survival training
If plummeting to Earth at 230 metres a second isn’t bad enough, what happens if you land in the wrong place?
Re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere is a precarious business. It’s all about the angle – too steep and the spacecraft burns up, too shallow and it bounces off back into space. Assuming you’ve found the narrow corridor between these two extremes, if something goes wrong with the timing, you could find yourself landing way off course.
This happened during the Soviet Voskhod 2 mission in 1965. A delay of 46 seconds caused by a spacecraft malfunction, meant it landed hundreds of kilometres from the intended target. Unfortunately for the crew, Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev, this was deep in the Siberian wilderness.
Dense forest meant that rescue helicopters couldn’t land, so Leonov and Belyayev had to endure a night in -30°C temperatures. This was made even more uncomfortable by the knowledge that the forest was inhabited by bears and wolves. In the end the crew had to ski their way to safety.
Unsurprisingly, skis were not included on the spacecraft stowage list (they were brought in by rescuers), but the crew were well equipped to deal with a scenario like this. Inside a Soyuz spacecraft a survival pack is stowed between the seats. The kit includes a thermal suit, a machete, emergency rations, flares, fishing tackle, and even a gun
In addition, there is a fetching orange one-piece, known as a Forel Hydrosuit, which comes complete with cap and boots. Forel is Russian for ‘Trout.’ The heavyweight nylon suit is waterproof and designed to float in the event of landing in either water, swamp, or heavy snow. It has an inflatable collar, like those used on airplanes, with a mouthpiece and tube for extra inflation.
One thing Leonov and Belyayev did have going for them was that they landed within Soviet territory. Anywhere else, and there would have been no guarantee of a warm welcome. To help mitigate this risk, since 1968 astronauts have carried a piece of paper detailing the ‘Rescue Agreement’. This was created by the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) to safeguard space travellers.
The agreement states that if a country becomes aware of a spacecraft landing within its territory due to an accident, distress, or emergency, they must provide all possible assistance to rescue any personnel of the spacecraft. They are also obliged to notify the country that launched the spacecraft and the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
However, not all landings are on land. The United States’ Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes all favoured the ‘splashdown’ method. Which, as the name suggests, involves the capsule parachuting into the ocean. This comes with its own set of dangers.
During the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission, the spacecraft’s hatch blew open after splashdown, allowing water to gush into the capsule. Astronaut Gus Grissom narrowly escaped, but then had to deal with his spacesuit rapidly filling with water. Thankfully, a rescue helicopter was on the scene and managed to lift him to safety.
Mercury and Gemini astronauts were equipped to handle another danger of the ocean, sharks. Their survival kits contained a shark repellent known as ‘Shark Chaser’. Apparently, this smelled like a dead shark when released into the water.
There is some debate as to how effective this was, and some versions of the shark repellent were said to actually attract sharks! By the time of the Apollo programme they decided to take their chances without it.
Today astronauts still have to train for every eventuality. As part of British astronaut Tim Peake’s training he was thrown out a helicopter, forced to survive in the wilderness for several days with minimal equipment, and spent a night floating on a life raft in the Mediterranean Sea.
All this before even going into space!
About the author: Hannah Baker is the Assistant Curator at the National Space Centre