Astronauts were cool as booster failed at 4,700 mph, 50 km altitude
MOSCOW — NASA’s chief heard one reassuring sound over the radio link after the aborted launch of a Soyuz capsule with an American and a Russian aboard.
It was U.S. astronaut Nick Hague calmly relaying information in Russian to flight controllers.
“My reaction was, ‘Things aren’t going well and he’s not speaking English,’” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters Friday, after Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin returned to the Star City training centre outside Moscow from their abruptly shortened mission.
“So, in other words, he was calm, he was cool, he was collected, he was doing what he was trained to do,” said Bridenstine, who was at the Baikonur Cosmodrome to watch the launch.
Two minutes after Hague and Ovchinin blasted off Thursday for the International Space Station, their rocket failed, triggering an emergency landing. Their capsule fell from an altitude of about 50 kilometres at a sharperthan-normal angle, building up gravitational forces at 6-7 times those on Earth. It had been travelling about 4,700 mph.
It was the first such accident for Russia’s manned program in over three decades, although there also have been launch failures in recent years involving unmanned vehicles.
Russia has suspended manned space launches and an investigation is underway, but Bridenstine said he doesn’t expect the next mission taking a crew to the space station in December to be delayed. That crew includes Canadian astronaut David SaintJacques.
Bridenstine recalled the tense moment when he heard Hague reporting the G-forces in Russian to Mission Control, followed by a break in communications and the loss of flight data.
“There was the time when I heard 6.7G, and that was the first time I realized that’s not right,” he said. “And then of course data was lost, communications was lost for a period of time, and then everybody went to their respective corners attempting to find out what the truth is. And when we learned that the crew was safe and descending it was a moment to behold. A lot of people very, very happy.”
Hague’s calm voice showed he was well-trained for the emergency, although there was still a nervous atmosphere at Baikonur, Bridenstine said.
“That’s the scary moment, you know, when you know that the Gs are not where they should be and then communications stops and I’m sure that they are going through their procedures and doing their thing and the question is what’s the ultimate G-load ... and how does that affect the crew,” he said. “And during that time we weren’t getting a lot of feedback, but again that’s appropriate because they were busy and we were OK with that.”
About 34 minutes elapsed from the time the rocket failed to when the capsule finally parachuted to a landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan, where rescue crews swiftly picked up the pair.
Bridenstine praised the Soyuz emergency rescue system, saying it functioned like a “miracle.”
“Even when a failure occurs, because of the engineering and the design and the great work done by folks in Russia, the crew can be safe,” he said. “That’s an amazing capability and we can’t understate how important it is. Not every mission that fails ends up so successfully.”