THE MEN WHO FELL TO EARTH
Astronauts abort mission at 4,700mph as rocket fails... then return safely and joke: That was a short flight!
TWO astronauts were lucky to be alive last night after their rocket malfunctioned seconds after take-off, forcing them to abort their mission and endure a terrifying emergency landing.
American Nick Hague, 43, and Russian Alexey Ovchinin were on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) when disaster struck 119 seconds into their voyage.
They had ascended to 50 miles and were climbing at 4,700mph when a booster on the Russian Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft failed. Despite the danger, Mr Ovchinin, 47, joked: ‘We’re tightening our seatbelts.’
They were forced to return to earth in ‘ballistic descent mode’ – meaning they dropped like a stone, enduring crippling G-forces on their way down.
Nasa said they experienced forces of 6.7g – far more than the 4g of some rollercoasters.
Using parachutes to slow their capsule’s descent, they landed 15 miles from the city of Jezkazgan in Kazakhstan, 310 miles from the launch site, and were later pictured smiling during medical checks.
Last night, the Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal inquiry to check whether construction regulations were violated.
The craft’s emergency systems worked as planned, but the incident is a huge embarrassment to the beleaguered Russian space industry – and to President Vladimir Putin, who claims Russia will launch a mission to Mars as early as next year.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is also setting up a commission to investigate what went wrong.
Russia has suspended all Soyuz launches, even though it is the only vehicle able to ferry crews to the International Space Station after the US scrapped space shuttle flights.
The Soyuz is one of the oldest rocket designs, but is considered a workhorse with a good safety record. Russia began a criminal inquiry in August after a 2mm hole was found in the body of a Soyuz MS module docked at the ISS. Investigators said it could have been drilled on purpose.
European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst used his thumb to block the hole before colleagues used electrical tape to cover it temporarily.
Following the latest close shave, Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: ‘Thank God, the astronauts are alive. This is the main thing.
‘It’s good that the safety sys-
‘We’re tightening our seatbelts’
tems and crew worked properly.’ Although diplomatic relations between Russia and the US are tense, they continue to cooperate on space exploration.
Following lift- off at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 8.40am yesterday, all seemed to be going well for what was meant to be a six-hour flight to the ISS.
But 119 seconds into the voyage, the crew became weightless when they should have been feeling the pressure of massive acceleration.
The failure occurred during ‘staging’, in which the rocket discards empty fuel segments. As a result, the engines were shut down and the capsule containing the crew shot away from the rocket and into a ballistic descent with a far steeper landing angle than normal.
Live footage inside the cockpit showed the two men being violently shaken around as the booster fails.
Mr Ovchinin can be heard over the radio saying, ‘We’re tightening our seatbelts’, followed by, ‘That was a short flight’.
Rescuers took more than an hour to find them unhurt and in a good condition, and they were taken by helicopter to Jezkazgan for medical tests.
The two men, both former military pilots, had been due to join Commander Gerst and two other astronauts, who have been in the ISS since June.
It was the first time Mr Hague, who became a Nasa astronaut in 2013, had gone into space.
Mr Ovchinin spent six months at the ISS in 2016. His wife, Svetlana, said yesterday that she felt ‘a lot worse than them’.
Soyuz rockets have been involved in other ballistic descents in recent years. In 2008, three crew returning from the ISS nearly died when they had to make a ballistic landing, and in 2003, two Americans and a Russian were lost for more than two hours after coming to Earth 300 miles off course.