NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Expedition 16 commander, smiles as she receives assistance at a helicopter after landing in the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft with Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko (out of frame), flight engineer and Soyuz commander; and South Korean spaceflight participant So-yeon Yi (out of frame) on April 19, 2008 in central Kazakhstan.
HOUSTON The first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) said Friday that she is confident Russian engineers will find the source of a glitch that sent a Soyuz spacecraft off course during her April 19 landing with two crewmates.
U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson, who commanded the station's six-month Expedition 16 mission, told reporters here at NASA's Johnson Space Center that Russia's Federal Space Agency and an independent group looking into her off-target landing and an earlier one from October should find the root cause.
"They'll get to the bottom of it," said Whitson, adding that the Russian agency's decision to include outside investigators in their review will aid the process. "That will be a better way of having it less biased."
Whitson returned to Earth aboard a Russian-built Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko to complete a 192-day space station flight with a landing on the central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan. South Korea's first astronaut So-yeon Yi also returned to Earth with them to wrap up an 11-day trek to the station.
The Soyuz returned to Earth under a ballistic flight path, a steeper-than-normal descent that subjected Whitson and her crewmates to just over eight times the force of Earth's gravity, about twice what she expected. Whitson said the ballistic landing approach is something she and Malenchenko were prepared for since it occurred during the return of the station's Expedition 15 crew last fall.
The plunge through the Earth's atmosphere was bumpy, with a malfunction delaying the separation between the Soyuz's crew-carrying capsule and its disposable propulsion module. But thorough training compensated for a loss of communications with Russia's Mission Control during the entire descent, Whitson said.
A group of eight local Kazakhs greeted the Soyuz spaceflyers and helped Whitson and Yi out of the spacecraft, even if they didn't fully believe the astronauts came from space.
"Hearing Yuri tell the story as he was trying to explain to them where we came from was very entertaining," Whitson said with a laugh.
Whitson returned to her Houston home here last Saturday and is readapting to living life under the tug of Earth's gravity. Her garden, which she was looking forward to seeing again after six months in orbit, is in good shape.
"I haven't been doing any digging yet, but I have checked out all my flowers to see which ones are doing well," Whitson told SPACE.com.
A veteran of two long-duration missions to the space station, Whitson is NASA's reigning champion for the most days in space (377 days over two expeditions) and said her readjustment to Earth's gravity is going well.
During her Expedition 16 flight, she set a new record for the most spacewalking time by a female astronaut and helped install a connecting module, Europe's Columbus laboratory, and a storage room for Japan's massive Kibo laboratory. The main segment for Japan's Kibo lab, a tour bus-sized module that will become the station's largest room, is poised to launch May 31 aboard NASA's shuttle Discovery.
"I would have loved to have had the whole thing there. I'm greedy that way," Whitson said of the Kibo laboratory. "It was a lot of fun opening up new modules. It's just an incredible new volume that we have, so that was very neat."
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