How To Fly A Soyuz Space Capsule

Here's the situation: You wake up, dazed, and find yourself floating weightlessly in the cramped confines of a Soyuz orbital module, possibly the victim of a prank by wealthy, well-connected friends — or maybe some espionage plot. Maybe you owe money to some powerful Russians. Who knows — maybe you even planned it. Whatever the reason, you're there, and now you need to take charge of the situation. I'm here to help. Here's how to fly it.

What we need to do now is get you in control of that spacecraft: Soyuz craft can stay in on-orbit storage for six months, but usually only have enough fuel and consumables (food, air, magazines) for three or four days, just enough time to get to and from the space station. So we either need to get you back to earth or to a space station.

Now, this is only one part of a series, and I'm just covering very basic stuff— maneuvering in orbit. Not changing orbits or anything like that, which we'll get to, but just basic spacecraft control. My suggestion for the big picture plan is to make for Tiangong-1, the new Chinese space station. It's currently unmanned, and probably has packets of delicious dim sum in it. Besides, if you show up at the ISS they'll probably arrest you.

Okay, back to our immediate problem. First thing you want to do is get out of the orbital module and into the descent module, where all the flight controls are. The orbital modules a sort of little camper thing at the front of the Soyuz— the bathroom's there, too. To get to the descent module, go to the hatch on the other side from the forward-facing window. It may have a little round door, so open that up. Inside you should see a cramped space with three seats. Head for the middle one.

Okay, settled in? Great. The seats are form-fitted to cosmonauts in their suits, so it may feel funny. We can deal with that. Look around for a stick-thing, too— you'll need that to poke buttons from the seat. Let's look at the control panel in front of you; try not to be intimidated. Yes, it's all in Russian, yes it's full of buttons and lights, but here's how it all breaks down:

How To Fly A Soyuz Space Capsule

Those screens seem pretty crude, huh? Eight colors? What is this, an Intellivision? Hey! Get a grip! We've got to focus. What we really care about now are those two joysticks right in front of you. Luckily, you've likely been playing with dual-joystick controls since you were a kid, so we have a fighting chance here. The left joystick is used to move the entire ship in three dimensions (they call that translation)— forwards, backwards, left, right, up, down. The right joystick is used to orient the ship: twist for roll (along the long axis), up and down for pitch (pointing the nose up or down), and left and right for yaw (the angle you're pointing on the horizontal plane). I'm told by Astronaut Ed Lu that the Soyuz attitude control system automatically takes actions to stop the ship's motion when you let go of the stick, so, for example, you won't keep rolling when you let go. Nice.

How To Fly A Soyuz Space Capsule

Those joysticks control a set of thrusters placed all over the Soyuz, called the Reaction Control System, or RCS. The RCS thrusters are mostly clustered around the "waist" of the Soyuz, between the descent module and service module, but the main engine and some of the forward/pitch thrusters are located in the skirt, way aft.

Old Soyuzes had most of the RCS thrusters here, but that caused unwanted orientation changes, so be happy you're stuck in the latest Soyuz TMA.

How To Fly A Soyuz Space Capsule

Okay. Try that out a bit. You should be able to feel it moving. To see where you're going, you may be lucky enough to have the mode of the screens activated to show the docking cameras– that screen should look something like the example here, but with a video feed behind the crosshairs.

If not, you can use the periscope by looking down into the round window below the control panel, between your legs.

How To Fly A Soyuz Space Capsule

See anything? Fly around a bit and look. The ISS is a big, complex station, which should be pretty recognizable. If you're really low on food (check the cabinets in the Orbital module, by the flip-up table) then you may as well bite the bullet and head to the ISS. There's radio controls at the lower center of the control panel you can use to try and contact them, though I bet if you just hang out in front of a window they'll eventually see you. If you're near the Chinese station, they do use a very similar docking system to the Soyuz, but I'm not totally sure it's compatible. We may have to try a risky 2001-style spacewalk. We'll pick that up in an upcoming installment.

In the meantime, practice flying your Soyuz around in orbit, and don't panic!