American, Russian safe after malfunction
Booster failure sends crew freefalling back to Earth at over 6 Gs
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.
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.
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.
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.