About two weeks before my return to Earth, I had a videoconference from the International Space Station with astronaut Scott Kelly who told me about his experience plunging over Niagara Falls in a burning barrel six months before. He was actually describing what his own ride home from the ISS on a Soyuz spacecraft was like. Now that I’ve taken the same trip, I can tell you that it was as advertised, and more.
I spent undocking day completing a biological study and stowing it onboard the Soyuz for return to Earth, packing cargo, taking some last minute pictures of our beautiful planet from the space station Cupola, and Tweeting pictures I took on my last full day in space. Following a brief goodbye to Mike Fossum, Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov, who remain onboard the space station, Sasha, Andrey and I hurried into our Soyuz spacecraft, closed the hatch and started preparing for undocking.
Once the hatch was closed, I put on special garments worn under my spacesuit to help counteract the negative effects of the g-forces we would encounter upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Sasha and Andrey also dressed in their spacesuits, and then we all strapped into the same seats we occupied when we launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 5, 2011. Andrey was on the left, Sasha in the middle, and I sat on the right.
As the hooks securing our spacecraft released, springs pushed us slowly away from the space station. As we backed away, I took in my last views of the amazing orbital complex that we called home for five and a half months. I strained for a last glimpse of the outboard edge of the space station’s massive solar arrays through the window next to my seat.
We made a lap and a half around the Earth before the spacecraft fishtailed to point backwards, just as the moon was setting west of South America. Then, moments before passing the southern tip of the continent, I watched an orbital sunrise one last time. We then fired the main engines for about four and a half minutes, enough to slow us down for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The next big event during our return to Earth was the separation of our Soyuz spacecraft into three separate parts: the orbital compartment, the propulsion compartment and the descent capsule, the only part that would survive the transition through the atmosphere. Separation occurred with a small explosion followed by debris flying everywhere out my window!
G-forces started to build soon after separation. I could see the atmosphere change to pink outside my window. North Africa and Saudi Arabia flew by as we approached Earth at a steep angle, at just under 5 miles per second. Fountains of sparks flashed as the g-forces built to 4.5 times normal gravity. Then flames, as the window burned black and opaque. This is all entirely normal!
The drogue parachute opened, sending the capsule – and the three of us – into a wild gyration as though we were on the end of a towel being vigorously waved in every direction. After about thirty seconds, things settled down. Then, the main chute opened and the wild gyrations started all over again. “It’s like a wild American amusement park ride,” shouted Andrey in Russian. I simply shouted “Yoo Hoo!”
To help absorb the shock of landing, explosive charges fired and instantly pushed our seats forward so that our faces were very close to the instrument panel. Window covers were jettisoned, removing the burnt opaque layer on the exterior of our windows, allowing light to flood into the cockpit, and providing an unobstructed view of the Kazakh steppes rushing up to meet us.
We could hear the rescue helicopters calling our altitude, and instructing us to prepare for landing. I raised my right arm so that I could see the window in my wrist mirror, and watched as the ground rose up.
I heard the “soft” landing rockets fire 6/10 of a second before impact. The actual impact with the ground was significantly harder than I anticipated. I remember thinking, “Wow that was hard, I’m glad that’s over.” Little did I know we had a few landings to go!
I knew that after landing we might have the sensation of tumbling because of changes to our vestibular system (balance) following a long mission in space. Debris being tossed around INSIDE the capsule was a solid sign we were really tumbling. The capsule finally came to rest on its side, with me on the bottom. The view from my window was dirt and grass. Earth.
Shortly after landing, Russian ground personnel opened the hatch, extracting Sasha from the capsule. I was next, followed by Andrey. The three of us were carried to reclining chairs, where we were able to speak to our families via satellite phone while the medical tent was being set up. It was wonderful to speak with my family in Houston while we were all on the same planet, and it was really great to feel the cool breeze and warm sun on my face for the first time in 164 days.
After moving to the medical tent, I changed from my spacesuit into a more comfortable flight suit, while being checked out by Dr. Steve Gilmore and our NASA medical personnel. After we were all checked out, Sasha, Andrey and I left the landing site in three separate helicopters for a ninety-minute ride to Karaganda airport. I took a nap.
Tradition and Farewell
We were welcomed at the airport by officials and young people, who presented each of us with flowers, chocolates, hand painted dolls and traditional Kazakh robes, which we wore during the press conference that followed. Then, after nearly three years of training together and sharing a mission during this milestone fiftieth year of human spaceflight, Sasha, Andrey and I said farewell, and then continued on our respective journeys home.
My journey home to Houston began when I boarded a NASA aircraft. The first stop was for refueling in Prestwick, Scotland. I was glued to the window on final approach as the lush green countryside passed below us. It was great to get out and walk around in the fresh Scottish air before continuing to Bangor, Maine in the United States.
As we approached the airport in Maine, we were treated to a stunning sunset. I sat there contemplating the difference between this sunset and the countless orbital sunsets I watched during my stay on the ISS. Besides the realization that I would see only one sunset each day, instead of sixteen, I really noticed the differences in the colors and the thickness in the bands of sunset. As we waited for the aircraft to be refueled, I had the chance to speak with some Marine Corps V-22 pilots also waiting for fuel, and to let family know I was back in the U.S.
I slept for almost the entire last leg of our flight, awakened by the sound of the flaps being lowered in preparation for landing at Ellington Field in Houston. The landing was smooth and uneventful. My wife and three sons boarded the plane. I was truly home.