Amer­i­can, Rus­sian safe af­ter mal­func­tion

Booster fail­ure sends crew free­fall­ing back to Earth at over 6 Gs

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - FROM WIRE RE­PORTS

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 two­mem­ber crew — an Amer­i­can and a Rus­sian — to make a har­row­ing para­chute land­ing in their cap­sule.

U.S. as­tro­naut Tyler “Nick” Hague and Rus­sian cos­mo­naut Alexey Ov­chinin had made it half­way to space be­fore sud­denly go­ing the other di­rec­tion. They fell about 31 miles back to the ground, ac­cord­ing to NASA. They were quickly lo­cated by res­cue teams and flown back to the launch site for an emo­tional re­union with their fam­i­lies.

The fail­ure of the Soyuz MS­10 rocket ef­fec­tively halts all U.S. and Rus­sian ac­cess to space pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what went wrong. For seven years, since NASA re­tired the space shut­tle, the United States has re­lied on Rus­sian hard­ware to ferry Amer­i­cans to and from the space sta­tion.

Thurs­day’s dra­matic de­vel­op­ments ratch­eted up pres­sure on Boe­ing and Spacex, the two com­pa­nies that were sup­posed to have com­mer­cial space­craft ready

for launch this year but have ex­pe­ri­enced de­lays and are not ex­pected to be ready un­til the mid­dle of next year at the ear­li­est.

Cur­rent ISS crew

Three crew mem­bers cur­rently on the space sta­tion are in no dan­ger, NASA said. They have ad­e­quate sup­plies for an ex­tended mis­sion be­yond their planned Dec. 13 re­turn and can get home in a spare Soyuz space­craft cur­rently at­tached to the space sta­tion. But there are lim­its to how long the Soyuz mod­ule can re­main in or­bit be­fore its fuel is no longer re­li­able.

An­other three­per­son crew is sched­uled to launch in De­cem­ber for the sta­tion, but that mis­sion is im­per­iled by Thurs­day’s rocket fail­ure. NASA of­fi­cials said it’s pos­si­ble that at some point the as­tro­nauts in space will have to re­turn to Earth with no crew to re­place them.

NASA is not ea­ger to aban­don, even tem­po­rar­ily, the $100 bil­lion or­bital lab­o­ra­tory, which re­quires con­stant main­te­nance and has never be­fore been op­er­ated solely by ground com­mands.

Big de­ci­sions lie ahead, but on Thurs­day, U.S. and Rus­sian of­fi­cials ex­pressed re­lief af­ter the close brush with dis­as­ter. This was a ter­ri­fy­ing day — but not a tragic one be­cause the es­cape sys­tem worked.

“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. “This is a very dif­fi­cult busi­ness that we’re in. And it can ab­so­lutely hum­ble you.”

‘Fail­ure of the booster’

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 tele­vi­sion.

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 on Earth and put the cap­sule into a spin.

They were briefly out of con­tact dur­ing the 34­minute des­cent. NASA’S deputy chief as­tro­naut, Reid Wise­man, said his heart was pound­ing as he won­dered where the cap­sule would come down. At that point only grav­ity was in con­trol.

Para­chutes de­ployed au­to­mat­i­cally, and the cap­sule tum­ bled onto its side on a grassy flat­land 200 miles from the launch site.

Hague and Ov­chinin were ex­am­ined by med­i­cal of­fi­cials and were deemed in good shape.

“Glad our friends are fine,” sta­tion com­man­der Alexan­der Gerst tweeted from the Eu­ro­pean Space Agency.

Launches sus­pended

Rus­sian of­fi­cials said crewed space launches have been sus­pended pend­ing an in­ ves­ti­ga­tion into the mal­func­tion. Rus­sia’s In­ter­fax news agency also said all un­crewed launches could be halted for the rest of the year, cit­ing space pro­gram sources.

Thurs­day’s launch fail­ure came at a dicey mo­ment in the U.s.­rus­sia space part­ner­ship. The two na­tions have been con­ge­nial 250 miles above the Earth’s sur­face even when events on the ground, such as the Rus­sian an­nex­a­tion of Crimea or the in­ter­fer­ence of Rus­sia in the 2016 elec­tion, have stoked ten­sions.

But the United States and Rus­sia have been at odds over the cause of a small hole dis­cov­ered in Au­gust on the Soyuz mod­ule — Soyuz MS­09 — cur­rently docked at the space sta­tion. Moscow says the hole, now re­paired, was the re­sult of de­lib­er­ate drilling and has sug­gested sab­o­tage, while the U.S. space agency said this week that in­ves­ti­ga­tors will de­ter­mine the cause.

Against that back­drop, NASA ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine trav­eled to Kaza­khstan to wit­ness Thurs­day’s launch and meet his Rus­sian coun­ter­part, Dmitry Ro­gozin of Roscos­mos. Ro­gozin said he was form­ing a state com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate what caused the fail­ure.

Soyuz rock­ets, in var­i­ous ver­sions, have been the main­stay of the Soviet and Rus­sian space pro­grams since the 1960s, and they have re­li­ably car­ried as­tro­nauts into space with no fa­tal fail­ures.

In 1983, a Soyuz caught fire and ex­ploded on the launch­pad, but two as­tro­nauts were safely car­ried away by the space­craft’s es­cape sys­tem. An­other Soyuz failed in flight in 1975, but as it did Thurs­day, the es­cape sys­tem lifted the as­tro­nauts it car­ried to safety.

Other Rus­sian rock­ets fer­ry­ing goods aloft in re­cent years have had a check­ered record, in­clud­ing the Progress, which is al­most iden­ti­cal to the Soyuz rocket.

In De­cem­ber 2016, a Progress rocket car­ry­ing 2.6 tons of food, fuel and sup­plies — but no as­tro­nauts — to the space sta­tion failed to reach or­bit and largely burned up in the at­mos­phere. In 2015, an­other Progress cargo ship spun out of con­trol and was also de­stroyed as it fell back to Earth.

Dmitri Lovet­sky/the As­so­ci­ated Press

The Soyuz rocket tak­ing a new crew to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion failed min­utes af­ter launch on Thurs­day. Their des­cent back to Earth took 34 min­utes.

Bill In­galls/ NASA

As­tro­naut Nick Hague and cos­mo­naut Alexey Ov­chinin em­braced their fam­i­lies af­ter an emer­gency land­ing in Kaza­khstan on Thurs­day. A rocket fail­ure min­utes af­ter liftoff on a mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion forced the twop­er­son crew to make a har­row­ing para­chute land­ing in their cap­sule. Hague and Ov­chinin were res­cued with­out in­juries.

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