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Russian capsule carrying American, first South Korean astronaut lands off target

Sunday, April 20, 2008

MOSCOW -- A Russian capsule carrying South Korea's first astronaut touched down 260 miles off target in northern Kazakhstan on Saturday after hurtling through the atmosphere in their descent from the international space station.

It was the second time in a row, and the third since 2003, that the Soyuz landing went awry.

Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said the condition of the crew -- South Korean bioengineer Yi So-yeon, American astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko -- was satisfactory, though the three had been subjected to severe forces during the re-entry.

The Russian TMA-11 craft touched down at 3:51 a.m. about 260 miles off its mark, Lyndin said, an unusual distance given how precisely engineers plan for landings. It was also around 20 minutes later than scheduled. Search helicopters took 25 minutes to locate the capsule.

Officials said the craft followed a ballistic re-entry -- a steep trajectory that subjects the crew to high physical force. Lyndin said the crew had experienced forces up to 10 times those of Earth's gravity during the 3 1/2 hour descent.

The crew were being examined on site by medical officials, and were later to return to Moscow for further evaluation.

"The most important thing is that the crew is healthy and well," Federal Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov told reporters. "The landing occurred normally, but according to a back-up plan -- the descent was a ballistic trajectory."

Perminov said engineers would examine the capsule to determine what caused the glitch, though he blamed the Soyuz crew for not informing Mission Control about the unusual descent.

In October, a technical glitch sent a Soyuz spacecraft carrying Malaysia's first space traveler and two Russian cosmonauts on a steeper-than-normal path during their return to Earth. A similar problem happened in May 2003. Despite the mishaps, the Russian space program has a reputation for reliability.

The single-use Soyuz and Progress vehicles have long been the workhorses of the space station program, regularly shuttling people and cargo to the orbiting outpost. They took on greater importance following the grounding of the U.S. space shuttle fleet in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster.

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