Soyuz launches, quickly aborts

Amer­i­can and Rus­sian as­tro­nauts land 200 miles from launch site.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Dmitry Lovet­sky and Vladimir Isachenkov

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

U.S. as­tro­naut Nick Hague and Rus­sian cos­mo­naut Alexey Ov­chinin had made it about half­way to space be­fore fall­ing 31 miles back to Earth, NASA said. It was to be the first space mis­sion for Hague, who joined NASA’s as­tro­naut corps in 2013. Ov­chinin spent six months on the or­bit­ing out­post in 2016.

The cap­sule parachuted onto a bar­ren area 12 miles east of the city of Dzhezkaz­gan in Kaza­khstan. Search and res­cue teams scram­bled to re­cover the crew, and para­troop­ers were dropped to the site. Dzhezkaz­gan is 280 miles north­east of Baikonur, and space­craft re­turn­ing from the space sta­tion nor­mally land in that area.

The crew was lo­cated by res­cue teams, re­trieved from the cap­sule with no ap­par­ent in­juries, and flown back to the launch site for an emo­tional re­union with their fam­i­lies.

“Thank God the crew is alive,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

A cas­cad­ing ef­fect felt

The fail­ure of the Soyuz MS-10 rocket led to the ground­ing of the Soyuz fleet and will have cas­cad­ing ef­fects for U.S. and Rus­sian space pro­grams, along with their international part­ners. The Soyuz is the only way to get to and from the sta­tion.

This was a ter­ri­fy­ing day, but not a tragic one. Some­thing went wrong — a fail­ure of un­known ori­gin dur­ing the fir­ing of the Soyuz MS-10 rocket’s se­cond booster — but the es­cape sys­tem worked per­fectly.

“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.

New NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine, who watched the launch at the Rus­sian-leased Baikonur cos­mod­rome with his Rus­sian coun­ter­part, said Hague and Ov­chinin were in good con­di­tion.

Bri­den­s­tine ac­knowl­edged in a NASA TV in­ter­view that “for a pe­riod of time, we didn’t know what the sit­u­a­tion was.”

Still, he said: “We are thrilled that even though it was a launch fail­ure, all of the safety sys­tems worked.”

All Rus­sian manned launches were sus­pended pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Yuri Borisov.

Borisov said Rus­sia will share all rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion with the U.S., which pays up to $82 mil­lion per ride to the space sta­tion.

“I hope that the Amer­i­can side will treat it with un­der­stand­ing,” he said.

‘The boys have landed’

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 TV.

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.

Right now the space sta­tion has a crew of three — an Amer­i­can, a Ger­man and a Rus­sian. They may find their mis­sion ex­tended, but at some point they will need to re­turn to Earth. Thurs­day’s ac­ci­dent led NASA of­fi­cials to ac­knowl­edge that they and their part­ners might need to bring everyone home and hope that the sta­tion can func­tion safely with no one aboard, re­ly­ing solely on com­mands from the ground.

On the or­bit­ing space sta­tion, the three crew mem­bers were kept in­formed of the events on Earth.

“The boys have landed,” mis­sion con­trol told the as­tro­nauts, who ar­rived at the space sta­tion in June and were sched­uled to re­turn Dec. 13.

Rus­sia’s In­ter­fax news agency, cit­ing sources in Rus­sia’s space pro­gram, said the space sta­tion crew will likely have to wait un­til early next year be­fore an­other mis­sion can be planned to bring sup­plies and take them home.

With fail­ure comes pres­sure

Space is a rare area of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Moscow and Washington, whose ties have de­te­ri­o­rated to lows not seen since the Cold War over is­sues such as Rus­sian election in­ter­fer­ence and the crises in Syria and Ukraine.

Thurs­day’s ac­ci­dent also comes as both na­tions re­main at odds over the cause of a small hole dis­cov­ered on the Soyuz MS-09 mod­ule at­tached to the ISS in Au­gust.

The fail­ure on Thurs­day puts tremen­dous pres­sure on NASA and the two com­pa­nies — SpaceX and Boe­ing — it has hired to fly its as­tro­nauts to the space sta­tion.

In 2014, NASA awarded con­tracts to SpaceX and Boe­ing to de­velop ve­hi­cles ca­pa­ble of fer­ry­ing as­tro­nauts to the sta­tion. But both com­pa­nies have faced re­peated de­lays, and NASA re­cently an­nounced that the first flights with as­tro­nauts on board wouldn’t hap­pen un­til the mid­dle of 2019.

YURI KOCHETKOV/GETTY-AFP

RUS­SIA DE­FENSE MIN­ISTRY

The Soyuz MS-10 space cap­sule, above, lies in a field af­ter an emergency land­ing. NASA as­tro­naut Nick Hague, cen­ter at left, and Rus­sia’s Alexey Ov­chinin were un­harmed.

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