Space crew makes har­row­ing es­cape af­ter lifto≠


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 a Rus­sian — to make a har­row­ing para­chute land­ing in their cap­sule, 200 miles from the launch site on the steppes of Kaza­khstan.

U.S. as­tro­naut Tyler N. “Nick” Hague and Rus­sian cos­mo­naut Alexey Ov­chinin had made it half­way to space be­fore sud­denly go­ing in 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 MS-10 rocket ef­fec­tively halts all Amer­i­can 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.

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 three-per­son 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.”

Booster fail­ure

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 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 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 dur­ing the 34-minute des­cent. NASA’s deputy chief as­tro­naut, G. Reid Wise­man, said his heart was pound­ing as he won­dered where the cap­sule would come down. At that point only grav­ity was in con­trol, and res- cue teams in he­li­copters raced to where they thought the cap­sule would land.

Para­chutes de­ployed au­to­mat­i­cally. The gray cap­sule tum­bled onto its side on a grassy flat­land. A pho­to­graph showed one crew mem­ber kneel­ing, the other re­clin­ing against the para­chute fab­ric, while three res­cuers ap­proached.

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

“Glad our friends are fine,” tweeted Alexan­der Gerst from the Eu­ro­pean Space Agency, the sta­tion com­man­der. “Space­flight is hard. And we keep try­ing for the ben­e­fit of hu­mankind.”

Rus­sian of­fi­cials said crewed space launches have been sus­pended pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion 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 MS-09 — 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. The sum­mit turned far more dra­matic than ei­ther had imag­ined.

Ro­gozin said he was form­ing a state com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate what caused the fail­ure. It was the first time the Soyuz had failed on a launch to the 20-yearold In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. Rus­sian Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Yury Borisov, who over­sees space flight, promised to share all in­for­ma­tion from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion with the United States.

Com­mer­cial space race

The fail­ure puts tremen­dous pres­sure on NASA and the two com­pa­nies — SpaceX and Boe­ing — it is count­ing on to fly its as­tro­nauts to the space sta­tion. Both com­pa­nies have faced re­peated de­lays. NASA re­cently an­nounced that nei­ther would fly even an un­crewed test flight this year and that the first flights with as­tro­nauts on board wouldn’t hap­pen un­til the mid­dle of 2019.

“We like hav­ing more than one op­er­a­tional sys­tem, and right now, by my count, we have zero,” said Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy ad­min­is­tra­tor who was a strong ad­vo­cate for com­mer­cial crews dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“You can look back at the de­ci­sions that were made — like re­tir­ing the shut­tle, like Congress not pro­vid­ing the fund­ing in the first years of com­mer­cial crew, which has de­layed the avail­abil­ity of SpaceX and Boe­ing. In ret­ro­spect those don’t look like wise de­ci­sions,” said space pol­icy ex­pert John M. Logs­don, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity.

In June, the space­craft Boe­ing plans to use to fly NASA as­tro­nauts to the space sta­tion suf­fered a sig­nif­i­cant set­back when of­fi­cials dis­cov­ered a pro­pel­lant leak dur­ing a test.

SpaceX also has suf­fered set­backs but says it is ready to fly its first test mis­sion to the sta­tion — with­out as­tro­nauts — in Jan­uary. Still, Phil McAlis­ter, who over­sees the com­mer­cial crew pro­gram for NASA, re­cently warned that “launch dates will still have some un­cer­tainty, and we an­tic­i­pate they may change as we get closer to launch.”

The last time Moscow’s space pro­gram had a crewed launch fail­ure was dur­ing the Soviet era in 1983, when a Soyuz booster ex­ploded. Cos­mo­nauts Vladimir Ti­tov and Gen­nady Strekalov jet­ti­soned and landed safely near the launch­pad.


The Soyuz MS-10 rocket car­ry­ing a U.S. as­tro­naut and Rus­sian cos­mo­naut blasts off Thurs­day from a launch­pad in Kaza­khstan.


The Soyuz MS-10 cap­sule sits in a field af­ter its emer­gency land­ing about 200 miles from the launch site in Kaza­khstan. The Amer­i­can and Rus­sian on board were ex­am­ined and deemed in good shape.

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