'We Were Inside This Plasma': What It's Like to Return to Earth From Space

An Italian astronaut calmly, delightfully describes the wildest trip humans can make.

Say you're returning home after a long trip. Say, though, that the trip was to space. While most homecomings are rough, what with their jet lag and their grudging returns to routine, yours, I am sorry to tell you, will be worse.

You'll leave the floaty frolickiness of microgravity to be crammed next to your crewmates inside a tiny capsule, which will plummet through the harsh atmosphere of Earth. Fiery plasma will streak outside your window. You'll feel the heat through your bulky suit. You'll make it through the fire only to have your freefall aborted by the abrupt opening of a parachute. And you'll make it through that, in turn, only to make a harsh collision with the harsh ground of Earth—via a "soft landing" that, as the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli puts it, "is not really soft."

So what does it actually feel like to take that trip? "Right Stuff" bravado and Hollywood allegory aside, what do astronauts experience as members of a Soyuz crew? What is it like to plummet to Earth as, essentially, a canned good?

The video above, based on a lesson delivered to the ESA astronaut class of 2009, explains the experience charmingly—and also, for this earthlubber, somewhat terrifyingly. (It's also long; for the roller-coaster-y experience, skip ahead to minute 10:07 or so, and watch from there.)

So: You're in the Soyuz. What does the first contact with Earth's atmosphere feel like? Here's Nespoli:

Seen from the inside of the spacecraft, it felt like there was somebody out there outside the spacecraft with a sledgehammer was hammering here and there, up and down. And so every few milliseconds, the spacecraft was shaking. There's a 'BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!' It felt really interesting, actually. 

What about, you know, being inside a capsule that is essentially riding inside a ball of fire? Nespoli again: 

We were inside this plasma. It was getting really red. And actually the window was getting pretty dark. What was happening [was] that a plasma stream was actually burning the outside layer of the window, which has a protective cover. So it was kind of interesting.

What about feeling the first pulls of gravity?

At that point, I really did not feel that much. I mean, the gravity starts grabbing you, but it's very gentle at the beginning. And you actually use it to feel—or go into the seat and buckle up, pull your straps, so that you really lay into the seat. It was an interesting feeling. 

But what about the increased g-forces?

You do feel it when you come back from space because now you have been in a non-gravity environment for a long time and you see all these forces grabbing you. You look at stuff and feel your hands are heavy, your watch weighs a ton, your books, the materials around you. And it's really a very, very strong feeling.  

Several miles above the surface of the Earth, the capsule deploys its parachute. According to Frank De Winne, another ESA astronaut (he's Belgian) and Nespoli's Soyuz crewmate, that goes a little something like this:

At the end of the atmospheric reentry, you really start hearing the noise of the wind and the sound. You're almost breaking the sound barrier, and then in the opposite direction, of course. You're coming back into the normal area of flying. And this is around 30,000 feet that the parachute has to open. This is actually a very critical moment. And it's one of the only things in the Soyuz where the crew does not have a manual override. So this is only an automated system.

And what about the actual opening of that chute? De Winne again:

It's also a very violent moment. You can imagine this 2,000-kg capsule soaring at the speed of sound through the atmosphere, and then all of the sudden you have a parachute that opens on the side and that pulls on you like a little swing. It's almost like a yo-yo. And you see the capsule going all around. It's much worse than in a roller coaster, because it's motions in all directions. And it's a little bit scary for some of us. For some others, it can also be fun, because they're like, 'ooh, this is the best ride I ever had.'"

But then?

Then everything calms down, of course, once the main parachute has deployed. You really come to the calm air after this whole violent reentry, this whole violent opening of the parachute. Then you're hanging safely, slowly descending to the Earth underneath your parachute. And this is actually the first time that you know, "I'm safe. We're going to make it."

All that's left, at that point, is the landing. Here's Nespoli, bringing us home:

The soft landing is not really soft. You prepare for it by putting your arms against your body, not touching any metallic parts, all your books against you. You're not talking, not to put the tongue in the middle of your teeth. And you're laying there, trying to be as inside your seat as well as you can. And you're waiting for this 'soft landing' to happen. Which, for me, it felt like a head-on collision between a truck and a small car. Of course, I wasn't in a small car.

So when this happened, it was like, 'BADDA-BOOM!' Everything shook. I was kind of checking in there. And then: silence. Everything was stopped. So I looked a little bit around, I looked at my crew members, and I said, "Hey, guys—welcome back to Earth."