Why were the Russians always able to land their cosmonauts on land while we had to land our astronauts on water?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
What’s so great about coming down on land? It’s just that hard landings were better suited to a country with lots of territory, not much money or hospitable ocean access, and a craving for secrecy. The U.S., on the other hand, had a long coastline, money to burn, and the characteristically American impulse to make a big production out of everything.
The Russian space center is located in central Asia in the midst of a huge unpopulated grassland. Landing nearby seemed like the obvious thing and was only slightly more challenging technically than landing in water. Both U.S. and Russian spacecraft slow themselves with retrorockets to start their descent, then open parachutes once they reach the atmosphere. The difference is that the Russian craft fires another smaller set of retrorockets just before touchdown to soften the impact. I’m told it’s still a bumpy landing, although all the cosmonauts seemed to have lived through it. (The two fatal accidents known to have occurred during the Soviet space program both happened during re-entry, but neither was attributable to touchdown on land. One involved loss of oxygen following improper detonation of explosive devices separating the capsule from its orbiter and the other a tangled parachute.)
The best part about it is that the recovery operation is dirt cheap. According to space engineer and author James Oberg, an authority on the Russian space program, a Russian recovery team typically consisted of maybe 20 or 30 guys with helicopters and halftracks, compared to the vast fleet that we money-is-no-object Americanskis used in the days before the space shuttle. The drawback is that if you miss your intended landing point, you could be in for a long wait. Astronauts who overshot in the early days might have to wait a couple hours to get picked up; cosmonauts have been known to wait a couple days. One hopes they brought a copy of War and Peace to while away the time.
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