South Korea's first astronaut rescued by startled nomads

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s first astronaut said she and her fellow crew were rescued by startled nomads after their space capsule thudded far off course into the remote steppes of Central Asia earlier this month.

Airport officers help South Korea's first astronaut Yi So-yeon (C) upon her arrival at Incheon airport in Incheon, west of Seoul April 28, 2008. REUTERS/Kim Sun-ah/Newsis

Yi So-yeon, 29, told SBS TV she thought she might die as they re-entered the earth’s atmosphere more steeply than normal and of excruciating pain from massive gravitational pull and as falling objects inside the capsule crashed into her.

“The nomads were surprised when Yuri (Malenchenko, the Russian flight engineer) climbed out of the capsule,” the nanotechnology engineer said in a transcript of the interview made available on Wednesday.

“They very well would have been, since a ball of fire fell from the sky and then a white object crawled out of it.”

The Soyuz-TMA capsule, returning with three crew on April 19 from the International Space Station, veered 300 miles off course and landed in the Kazakh steppes where Yi said they were discovered by a group of passing nomads.

Yi said they helped the crew out of their charred capsule, initially poking them to see if they were alive.

“It was as if they were watching monkeys in a cage. It drew a larger crowd, and eventually we were surrounded by about 50 people,” she said.

After dragging the crew into the shade, some of their helpers crawled back into the cramped capsule to bring out of the satellite phone.

“We asked them to help us because they had a smaller build. We were just about to set it up with batteries and all, when from faraway, a black dot came into sight,” Yi said, referring to the rescue aircraft which picked up the crew.

Yi was admitted to hospital on Tuesday for check-ups and treatment after experiencing pain in her back, according to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute.

She described how loose objects struck her in the weightless capsule as it rushed back to earth, subjecting them to twice the gravitational force of a normal entry.

“I’m pretty good when it comes to dealing with pain. Usually I can get by with a little ‘ouch.’ But at the time of the landing I couldn’t help but scream out,” she said.

“I thought that this is how I might die,” Yi said.

Russia has launched an investigation into what happened but has denied that the crew of three -- which also included U.S. commander Peggy Whitson -- came close to death on re-entry.

Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Valerie Lee