spaceSpace and Physics

What It Looks Like To Whizz Through Earth's Atmosphere, As Shown By An Astronaut


Katy Evans

Katy is Managing Editor at IFLScience where she oversees editorial content from News articles to Features, and even occasionally writes some.

Managing Editor


While whizzing through the atmosphere on re-entry, a plasma bubble forms around the spacecraft, preventing communication with ground control for a few nail-biting minutes. Image credit: Marc Ward/

When people imagine being in space, many will imagine it as serene, quiet, looking back on Earth in all its beauty (when you can't see up close the mess we're making of it). Many people forget you essentially have to hurl yourself through fire to get there and back again. Retired astronaut Jack Fischer has shared some videos on Twitter of what it's actually like whizzing through Earth's atmosphere for his "Landaversary", reminding people just how bumpy a ride it can be. 

"I caught a ride back to Earth, courtesy of the Soyuz, 4 years ago today. Some astronauts compare it to a series of car crashes... and I wouldn't disagree," Fischer wrote on Twitter on September 3, alongside a video showing himself, record-breaking astronaut Peggy Whitson, and cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin squeezed into the Soyuz spacecraft on their return to Earth.


The three experience what looks to be some epic turbulence as, having dropped through the atmosphere – which slows down the Soyuz craft – the parachute opens to slow the descent of the capsule even more for it to touch down on land. When it is close enough, it fires small rocket engines to slow down even more, which can give a bumpy finish. The Soyuz craft landing is often described as "not soft" hence the oft-quoted "car crash" analogy.

If you've ever seen astronauts touch back down on Earth you'll know they have to be carried out of the capsule due to spending so long in microgravity. They essentially have jelly legs due to the muscles and bones needing time to readjust to being in an environment with strong gravity.

But don't worry, Fischer didn't skip the actual whizzing through the atmosphere bit.

"I came home from space 4 years ago this week, and if you've ever wondered what it looks like when you travel through this atmosphere - here you go," Fisher tweeted with another video.


 This time, it showed the spectacular view out the window as the spacecraft descended through the atmosphere past what looks like a fiery hell. 


Technically, the capsule is dropping like a rock, rather than speeding with graceful intent like an airplane. The sparks we are seeing are parts of the ablative heat shield – designed to absorb and deflect the intense heat of re-entry – burning up in the atmosphere and putting on a good fireworks show, much like shooting stars.

The air friction creates a plasma bubble around the craft, cutting off communications with ground control stations for a few nail-biting minutes before it drops out of the atmosphere and around three minutes later, the parachute deploys for the last stage of the bumpy ride back to Earth.   

Is the dramatic journey worth it? When you get this kind of commemoration for surviving your trip to space, definitely. 

The Soyuz capsule, with Fisher, Whitson, and Yurchikhin onboard, lands in Kazakstan on September 3, 2017. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls




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