Scary but not tragic day for NASA
American, Russian land safely minutes after rocket failure
MOSCOW — A Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned two minutes after liftoff Thursday on a mission to the International Space Station, triggering an automatic abort command that forced the two-member crew — an American and Russian — to make a harrowing emergency landing in their capsule, 200 miles from the launch site in the steppes of Kazakhstan.
U. S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin had made it about halfway to space before falling 31 miles back to Earth, NASA said. It was to be the first space mission for Hague, who joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013. Ovchinin spent six months on the orbiting outpost in 2016.
The capsule parachuted onto a barren area 12 miles east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. Search and rescue teams scrambled to recover the crew, and paratroopers were dropped to the site. Dzhezkazgan is 280 miles northeast of Baikonur, and spacecraft returning from the space station normally land in that area.
The crew was located by rescue teams, retrieved from the capsule with no apparent injuries, and flown back to the launch site for an emotional reunion with their families.
“Thank God the crew is alive,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A cascading effect felt
The failure of the Soyuz MS-10 rocket led to the grounding of the Soyuz fleet and will have cascading effects for U.S. and Russian space programs, along with their international partners. The Soyuz is the only way to get to and from the station.
This was a terrifying day, but not a tragic one. Something went wrong — a failure of unknown origin during the firing of the Soyuz MS-10 rocket’s second booster — but the escape system worked perfectly.
“It wasn’t quite the day that we planned, but it is great to have Nick and Alexey at least back on the ground,” said Kenny Todd, who directs space station operations for NASA.
New NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who watched the launch at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome with his Russian counterpart, said Hague and Ovchinin were in good condition.
Bridenstine acknowledged in a NASA TV interview that “for a period of time, we didn’t know what the situation was.”
Still, he said: “We are thrilled that even though it The Soyuz MS-10 space capsule, above, lies in a field after an emergency landing. NASA astronaut Nick Hague, center at left, and Russia’s Alexey Ovchinin were unharmed. was a launch failure, all of the safety systems worked.”
All Russian manned launches were suspended pending an investigation, said Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov.
Borisov said Russia will share all relevant information with the U.S., which pays up to $82 million per ride to the space station.
“I hope that the American side will treat it with understanding,” he said.
‘The boys have landed’
The launch looked good until a red light illuminated inside the capsule.
“Failure of the booster,” a translator called out at mission control near Moscow, according to a transcript on Russian state TV.
The computers took over. The capsule automatically separated from the rocket. The crew felt a jolt and then quickly reported being weightless: They were in free fall back to Earth.
The crew members then initiated a “ballistic” trajectory that put Hague and Ovchinin under more than six times the force of gravity and put the capsule into a spin.
“We are getting ready for the G loads,” Ovchinin reported to mission control. “G load is 6.7.”
They were briefly out of contact.
Right now the space station has a crew of three — an American, a German and a Russian. They may find their mission extended, but at some point they will need to return to Earth. Thursday’s accident led NASA officials to acknowledge that they and their partners might need to bring everyone home and hope that the station can function safely with no one aboard, relying solely on commands from the ground.
On the orbiting space station, the three crew mem- bers were kept informed of the events on Earth.
“The boys have landed,” mission control told the astronauts, who arrived at the space station in June and were scheduled to return Dec. 13.
Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing sources in Russia’s space program, said the space station crew will likely have to wait until early next year before another mission can be planned to bring supplies and take them home.
With failure comes pressure
Space is a rare area of cooperation between Moscow and Washington, whose ties have deteriorated to lows not seen since the Cold War over issues such as Russian election interference and the crises in Syria and Ukraine.
Thursday’s accident also comes as both nations remain at odds over the cause of a small hole discovered on the Soyuz MS-09 module attached to the ISS in August.
The failure on Thursday puts tremendous pressure on NASA and the two companies — SpaceX and Boeing — it has hired to fly its astronauts to the space station.
In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop vehicles capable of ferrying astronauts to the station. But both companies have faced repeated delays, and NASA recently announced that the first flights with astronauts on board wouldn’t happen until the middle of 2019.