Three Soviet cosmonauts returned safely to Earth today after aborting an attempt to link their craft with an orbiting space station. They apparently endured some tense moments while plotting at short notice their reentry path to a soft landing in Soviet Central Asia.
There was considerable concern here earlier today when Radio Moscow announced that the space mission was to be terminated due to unspecified difficulties.
A grim-looking Soviet leadership took part in the scheduled Kremlin ceremony marking the 113th anniversary of the birth of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state. The session began just as the three cosmonauts were preparing to bring their craft to Earth.
In the middle of the ceremony, an official rushed into the main hall of the Kremlin Palace of Congresses to hand a note to Marshal Dimitri Ustinov, the defense minister. After reading the note, Ustinov smiled broadly and handed the note to Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov, who passed it on to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.
Moscow television and radio interrupted their scheduled programs to announce that the cosmonauts had landed safely at 5:29 p.m. Moscow time (8:29 a.m. EST) at a spot about 18 miles northeast of the city of Arkalyk in Kazakhstan.
A statement by the official news agency Tass suggested that manual landing techniques were employed by cosmonauts Vladimir Titov, Alexander Serebrov and Genady Strekalov.
An earlier Tass report said the cosmonauts aboard their Soyuz-T8 craft yesterday abandoned efforts to dock with the orbiting Salyut-7 space station because of a "deviation from the planned rendezvous regime."
If the mission had been completed, the Soviets would have created the largest orbital complex ever put together--the Soyuz-T8 craft, the Salyut-7 space station and an unnamed freighter hurled into orbit in March and linked by remote control with Salyut-7.
Western specialists here said the docking failure constitutes a serious setback for Moscow's efforts to establish a large, permanently manned orbiting complex. It was the first such failure involving a craft from the new Soyuz-T series, which has been in use for the past three years.
The three cosmonauts, who were hurled into orbit Wednesday, had been expected to stay on board Salyut-7 for some time. The huge transport craft launched last month and attached to the station was believed to contain provisions and equipment for a long stay.
An earlier team of cosmonauts set the space endurance record of 211 days on board the same craft last year.
The Soviets have experienced six failures previously with other Soyuz craft. The first ended in tragedy in 1971 when three cosmonauts died during their return to Earth. Nearly all other failures involved docking difficulties. The Soviets have not disclosed the nature of these difficulties, but western experts believe they center on problems with small maneuvering rockets.
A sudden termination of mission, according to these experts, can put crews in danger because they have to chart their way back and in most cases have to switch to manual controls.
Tass indicated that this was the case today by saying that on their way back "the cosmonauts carried out the orientation of the spacecraft and later consecutively separated the orbital module, activated the descent engine and separated the descent vehicle from the instrument and plant module."
The landing appeared to have followed the traditional Soviet techniques, with the capsule braked by parachutes and retrorockets being fired just before the touchdown to ensure a soft landing.
Moscow television tonight showed the photographs of the three cosmonauts after their landing. It reported they were in good condition and feeling well.