WASHINGTON – An American astronaut described her descent to Earth in a wayward Soyuz space capsule over the weekend as "pretty dramatic," in an audio recording released Tuesday by NASA.
On the recording, American Peggy Whitson described parts of the return as "a little more dramatic than I was expecting."
The three-person crew was subjected to gravity forces of about eight times Earth's gravity for up to two minutes. Normal Soyuz returns have G-forces of about five.
"I saw 8.2 G's on the meter and it was pretty, pretty dramatic. Gravity's not really my friend right now and 8 G's was especially not my friend. But it didn't last too long," Whitson said in the recording, apparently referring to the difficulty of readjusting to Earth's gravity after spending a prolonged period of time in space.
NASA said Tuesday it wasn't too worried that the capsule's off-course landing — the second straight for a Soyuz capsule returning from the international space station — saying the Russians have got a handle on it.
A Russian space official told the Russian news agency Interfax that the crew was in serious danger during the descent.
But NASA associate administrator for space operations William H. Gerstenmaier downplayed such alarm.
NASA wasn't aware of any danger for the crew although it didn't ask if the crew was at risk, Gerstenmaier said in a Tuesday news teleconference.
"I don't see this as a major problem," Gerstenmaier said in NASA's first comments about the landing. "But it's clearly something that should not have occurred."
Saturday's bone-jarring landing happened after the capsule went into an unplanned ballistic re-entry.
The Russians thought they had solved the descent problem after it cropped up last October and NASA agreed with their original analysis that a frayed wire was to blame, Gerstenmaier said.
However, the ship that landed Saturday was inspected in orbit and didn't have frayed wiring, he said, acknowledging that the original investigation went wrong.
"We may have missed the probable cause," Gerstenmaier said.
Still, NASA is satisfied with the way Russia is handling the mishap and hasn't asked to be part of the investigation, he said.
"I have complete confidence in what the Russians are doing. They were very concerned about this," he said. "They treated this with the same diligence as we would in the United States."
But when NASA officials testify about the international space station on Thursday they will be grilled about the incident.
"I'm obviously concerned anytime a human space flight mission doesn't go as planned. We need to get more information about what happened and why, as well as what will be done to keep it from happening again," said House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.
Gerstenmaier, who was at Moscow Mission Control when the Soyuz landed 300 miles off-course in Kazakhstan, relayed a little bit about what happened.
After the landing, it took a half hour before Soyuz flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko called Moscow on a satellite phone to say they were OK. But no one was worried because it often takes an entire hour for this to occur, he said.
Malenchenko "detected some smoke in the cabin," Gerstenmaier said. Then the NASA official added that it was "maybe not smoke, but actually the smell of burning materials" and that is not uncommon.
Malenchenko managed to get out of the capsule on his own, but Whitson and South Korea's first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, received help from locals in the area.
"It wasn't the search and rescue who got us out of the capsule. It was just some guys that had seen it and drove in," Whitson said in the recording. "They probably saw the fire and drove in toward the scene."
NASA spokesman John Yembrick said the fire was not related to the Soyuz landing, but occurred nearby where farmers were burning grass.
The crew was subjected to gravity forces of about eight times Earth's gravity for up to two minutes, he said. Normal Soyuz returns have G-forces of about five, NASA said.
They felt "a kind of general jostling in their seats that they have not felt before," Gerstenmaier said.
Alexander Vorobyov, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Space Agency, said it was common for a Soyuz hatch and antenna to have heat damage during re-entry.
He said investigators classified it as three on a five-point scale.