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!

Daily Mail - - Little John - By Claire Duf­fin

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.

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