Soyuz survival training
Survival training is an essential requirement for flying in a Soyuz spaceship, as it could land anywhere between 51.6° north or south if the ballistic descent was off-course. The crew would, in theory, be rescued in three days (though this has not yet been put to the test!). There is a specialized department at Star City devoted to such training, and the gear provided to crews is extensive, providing for landing on sea or earth.
The survival training is intended to psychologically prepare the crew for the stresses of an off-nominal landing in any of several environments, as well as learning the practical skills necessary to cope in such difficult conditions with the equipment provided: that in the descent capsule, the portable emergency kit, and what materials can be utilized from the surrounding environment – e.g. tree branches for constructing a shelter frame.
Training is both theoretical and practical, and is divided into three stages:
- Preliminary training
- This takes place at the Yu. Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (TsPK) and involves lectures from instructors in various aspects of survival methods, as well as getting acquainted with the equipment used.
- Direct training
- This is carried out in the relevant environments; e.g. at sea, in the forest and the desert (the last at Kazakhstan). Here the crew can integrate what they have learnt and gain valuable practical experience. Some survival tasks learnt include learning to build a makeshift shelter, firing the TP-82 (ТП-82) pistol and firing off flares (smoke and light).
- Independent integrated training
- In this final stage the crew are dumped in a wilderness area (usually the forest around Star City) for a couple of days with the Soyuz descent capsule-trainer and left to fend for themselves. There are two or three “exotic” training sessions a year (sea, winter, desert). Crews who will be going into space the following year partake in these.
Equipment used in the training includes a full-scale mock-up of the Soyuz capsule (including its parachutes), portable emergency kits and various items of survival clothing. Helicopters, trucks, airplanes and boats provide support for the training sessions.
Full medical support is also provided, and the cosmonauts’ health is carefully monitored during the course of training. The crew and instructors all receive basic first-aid training as well.
Survival training can encompass winter, mountains, desert, swamp, ocean recovery, parachuting and zero-g. It takes place on (or just above) Earth.
Winter survival training takes place in the forests surrounding Zvyozdnyi Gorodok, Star City. The crew spend anything from one to two days camping out (I think taxi crews get one day, ISS crews, who have more priority, get two). An orange Soyuz capsule mock-up is taken to the designated area, as are the crew. They are well-rugged up in thermal clothing which is provided in the extensive survival kits stored in the Soyuz. They must practise crawling out the capsule, doffing their Sokol suits and then clambering into the warm survival clothing. They then, assuming they can walk after months in orbit, have a look at the landscape, and make sure there are no hostile creatures lurking about (bears, tigers, wolves, annoyed locals, etc.).
Next comes the task of building a temporary shelter, utilizing the single machete and knife provided in the survival kit to chop down branches and small trees in the vicinity. It is easy to lose this equipment in the deep snow, so they are kept attached to a crew member. The crew are shown by the trainers how to construct various types of shelters:
- One-sided and two-sided (A-frame) shelters: branches are used to construct a frame, and lighter branches and grass used to make a woven wall on one or two sides. The parachute canopy can be draped over the top of this.
- A simple hammock-type tent can be constructed by stringing the parachute shroud between adjacent trees.
- If in a really cold (i.e. snow & ice) climate and the crew will have to wait more than a day or so, snow can be used to construct a wind break (cut into blocks and build a wall to shelter from the wind), a snow trench, a snow cavern dug into the side of a hill or an igloo. The igloo is the most reliable shelter under Arctic conditions.
Keeping warm and dry is obviously important, so learning to build a good fire is a must. This follows constructing a shelter. The fire is built in the open so it won’t melt snow on the trees above and put out the fire. The crew will have to gather dry branches for it.
There are two ПСНД, PSND signalling flares on-board, both double-ended. One end of the hand-held flare is marked Ночной, Nochnoi, night, and provides 60 seconds of bright orange light for use in the dark. The other end, Дневной, Dnevnoi, provides 30 seconds of orange smoke for daytime use. Each end is sealed by a water-tight cap and this is simply twisted off either end (the flare held well away from oneself) to activate the required flare. The “night” end can also be used to start a fire, but the flares can’t be re-used, so this is a last resort.
There is a gun on board, designated ТП-82, TP-82. It is a three-barrel pistol that can be used for firing signals and shooting game. The two upper barrels are smooth-bore firing 12.5 mm cartridges; the lower barrel is rifled and fires 5.45 mm bullet cartridges. The machete provided in the NAZ survival kit can be utilized as a butt for the gun.
According to James Oberg in Star-Crossed Orbits:
The triple-barrelled gun can fire flares, shotgun shells, or rifle bullets, depending on how it’s loaded. The gun and about 10 rounds for each barrel are carried in a triangle-shaped survival canister stowed next to the commander’s couch. The gun’s shoulder stock opens up into a machete for chopping firewood.
From the Angkasawan blog:
The pistol is intended to be used to kill animals for self-protection or for hunting, and is especially made for Russian cosmonauts. It has three barrels – two at the top and one at the bottom. The top two barrels fire flares, so that the rescue team can determine our location. The bottom barrel acts as a shotgun, and fires real bullets. In a crew of three, only the Commander will use the pistol, but he can pass the duty to the other crewmembers.
On the Soyuz TMA-11 flight in October 2007 the pistol was not carried for the first time in 20 years, as reported in the Guardian. There was a shortage of the special ammunition required for the gun – the original ammunition had deteriorated and no new bullets were available. Soyuz commander Yurii Malenchenko instead carried an ordinary pistol/handgun (a Makarov PM, Пистолет Макарова ПМ).
The least-desirable environment for a Soyuz to land is the ocean! Fortunately this hasn’t happened yet … 73% of the possible Earth area the Soyuz could land is ocean, so training for this is vital. Water survival training takes place in both the Hydrolab at TsPK, and on the Black Sea, near the coastal town of Sotchi. It is probably the most uncomfortable aspect of survival training, involving getting wet, overheated and seasick!
Crew members practise techniques first in the Hydrolab at Zvyozdniy Gorodok. They learn the bailout maneuver, falling backwards (not pushing off) the side of the Soyuz (or pool edge here), so as not to rock the capsule and have it fill with water and sink. If the crew don’t have time to don their orange survival suits they will have to evacuate wearing their Sokol pressure suits. They wear orange floatation bags under each arm, which must be inflated the moment they hit the water, otherwise they will sink. The crane used for lowering those training in Orlan spacesuits into the water also doubles as a mock helicopter for lifting the crew out.
The orange waterproof survival suit is called the Forel, «Форел» or “Trout”, “Salmon”. It is a sealed rubber dry suit that is pulled over several layers of warm clothing, and is meant to enable crews to survive for up to 24 hours in the Arctic. It can obviously get very hot in warmer weather though when training, and it is easy for a wearer to get heat exhaustion.
A military ship is used to take the crew and capsule from Sotchi out to sea (two lifeboats ferry the personnel to the ship and back), and first a few hours are spent practising survival techniques in the capsule on the ship’s deck. It can get very hot inside the cramped capsule on a sunny day, so a parachute cover is rigged up to shade the capsule.
The Soyuz capsule mock-up (a real modified capsule) is lifted off the deck with the crew inside by a crane and lowered into the water. The capsule remains connected to the ship via a long safety rope. There are radio communications gear in the Soyuz so the crew can stay in touch with the instructors on the ship.
The Soyuz capsule will probably float for a while upon landing, so the cosmonauts have to first wriggle out of their Sokol suits and don the Forel suits (an arduous procedure in a cramped, stuffy, bobbing capsule with a seasick crew!). They have to clamber out the top and fall back into the water (not push off). There is no lifeboat included in the survival gear, so the crew float and link up their legs to stay together, lighting an appropriate flare (smoke or light) to guide rescuers to their position. In a real rescue a helicopter will winch them up to safety; for the training the ship’s crew retrieve the cosmonauts via inflatable rafts. After about two hours in the ocean, the cosmonauts will be very relieved to get back on board and out of the uncomfortable Forel suits.
The training is generally safe, but one cosmonaut, 35-year-old Sergei Vozovikov, died in 1993 after getting caught in a fishing net and drowning. He left behind his wife, Svetlana, and a son and daughter (the former in 2001 was training to become a military pilot).
Steppe and desert
Cosmonauts also train for landings on the Kazakhstan steppe. After completing theoretical training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, they are flown to Baikonur Cosmodrome for two days of practice, instructed by specialists. The main purpose of this training is to teach the cosmonauts to survive in various climatic zones in case of an off-nominal landing. Therefore the cosmonauts are given the equipment and food available at the Soyuz TMA spaceship (the so-called emergency supply).
- African in Space: Mark Shuttleworth has described his winter and Black Sea survival training in some detail (in the Photo Galleries section).
- Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center: The older GCTC site has a page on survival training (via Archive.org)
- NASA: Black Sea survival training. The Expedition 1 preflight gallery also has some survival training images.
- TsPK: “Cosmonauts in the desert” (in Russian).
- Wikipedia: Sochi entry
Related page: Soyuz survival kit