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No worse for wear: Inside the Soyuz, Mark Shuttleworth and crewmembers await extraction in Kazakhstan.

Simonyi: There’s always pressure-integrity checks. It seems like that’s all we do on the spacecraft: check pressure integrity. There’s a very important instrument, a manometer–essentially a barometer, but for low pressure. It measures all the pressure on the spacecraft. It’s big and brass, and it has these pipes that connect to everything. Again, it could literally have been constructed in the 19th century.

Olsen: Anyway, on our descent, we noticed that the pressure was dropping. We still don’t know what happened, but some people think that a half-inch strap was lodged in the O-ring seal.

Simonyi: There was a valve that didn’t close–it’s anyone’s guess why–and when the pressures dropped, these garbage bags started to explode. Can you imagine the mess? Oh my God!

Olsen: Finally Commander Krikalyov says, “Olsen, kislorod,” which means “oxygen.” I had to reach over to the oxygen valve. It’s really difficult, because the valve is spring loaded. I held it open for about a minute, and finally the pressure came up to where it should be. But the problem now is that I’m enriching the air with oxygen. The normal air is roughly 21 percent oxygen. We got up to about 32 percent. If we reach 40 percent the cabin automatically depressurizes, because more than 40 percent oxygen tends to get spontaneous combustion.

Ansari: In most cases, something goes wrong.

Shuttleworth: The Soyuz is designed in a way where it has a very graceful degradation if things fail. Big chunks of subsystems can fail, and you can still make it home.

Simonyi: The critical point is when the three segments of the spacecraft separate and two segments are left to burn up.

Garriott: Separation really has three noises associated with it. First there is a kind of “pop” noise, which is a preseparation event–a disconnect of cables of some kind, or pipes. Then there is a pop where the habitationmodule is separated from in front of you. You can feel that force push you directly back with a nice, clean, smooth, directed-back movement. Another pop, and we separated from the instrument compartment. You can just feel if it’s clean. Pop, pop, pop.

Simonyi: I could actually see parts of the spacecraft floating by the window. We were going Mach 20 or 22 in, like, the thinnest of thin air, but it was enough to make a sizable piece of insulation that was torn off by the separation kind of flap next to us. It was kind of slapping us in the wind, left and right. Then it hit our wall, and it kind of flew away.

Ansari: There was this orange glow, with sparks and things.

Simonyi:It looks like Pepto-Bismol. It’s this solid pink plasma.

Garriott:It’s like being on the inside of a blast furnace.

Ansari: Looking out the window, I blurted out, “My God, it feels like I’m riding a shooting star!”

Olsen:All of a sudden things start vibrating, and you can feel the deceleration. We get about four and a half G’s, and it becomes hard to breathe. The capsule is being tossed around. There’s no radio contact. You just kind of have to go through it.

Simonyi:It was getting dark, but in fact it was the window burning up that caused the darkness. The window has like three panes, and the outside pane is made to burn off a bit.

Shuttleworth: You’re on your back, spinning around, and the G force is building up, and your vehicle is ablating away. It’s intense. You’ve got to focus on the G forces building up.

Simonyi:The G forces are substantial but much easier to take than the G forces fighter pilots take, because it is through a different axis of your body. It’s not down to your feet, but through your body, back and forth.

Garriott:The next big event is the opening of the drag chute, which can get a bit rough and tumble. Then when the main parachute opens, it’s kind of like being at the end of a whip that has been cracked. Debris begins to scatter through the capsule even if it is really held down. Lots of projectiles.

Simonyi: I was entrusted to carry all the books, because the bookshelf was full of scientific stuff. Nobody seemed to be worried that I was carrying these books through impact.

Garriott:We were all in space suits with helmets closed, so we were all quite well protected.

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Credits: REUTERS/Sergei Remezov, Maxim Marmur/AFG/Getty Images, Epsilon/Getty Images, REUTERS/NASA TV, REUTERS/Mikhail Grachyev, REUTERS/NASA/Bill Ingalls
Video by JR Rost

Tagged: Communications, space, spacecraft, spaceflight, outer space

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