A US astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut were forced to make an emergency landing after their Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned en route to the International Space Station (ISS).
Shortly after taking off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin reported a problem with the rocket’s booster.
The men were forced into a “ballistic descent”, with their capsule landing a few hundred miles north of Baikonur.
They have been picked up by rescuers.
“The search and recovery teams have reached the Soyuz spacecraft landing site and report that the two crew members… are in good condition and are out of the capsule,” US space agency Nasa said.
Russia said it was suspending any further manned flights, and an investigation into what went wrong had begun.
What happened to the rocket?
It’s not fully clear yet. The launch appeared to be going smoothly, but some 90 seconds later Nasa, on its livestream, reported that a problem seemed to have occurred with the booster rocket between the first and second stages of separation.
Footage from inside the capsule showed the two men being shaken around at the moment that the fault happened.
Nasa shortly afterwards said they were making a “ballistic descent”, meaning they descended at a much sharper rate than normal and would have been subject to greater G-force.
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Soyuz is one of the oldest rocket designs but also one of the safest. The malfunction appeared to occur around what is termed “staging”, where the ascending vehicle goes through the process of discarding its empty fuel segments.
The onboard astronauts were certainly aware that something was not right because they reported feeling weightless when they should have felt pushed back in their seats. The escape systems are tested and ready for exactly this sort of eventuality. It would have been an uncomfortable ride back to Earth, however. The crew would have experienced very sharp deceleration on the return.
There is already much discussion about the current state of Russian industry and its ability to maintain the standards of yesteryear. Whatever the outcome of the inquiry, this event will only heighten those concerns and will underline to the US in particular the need to bring online new rocket systems. These vehicles, produced by the Boeing and SpaceX companies, are set to make their debut next year.
How are the crew?
They seem to have been unharmed by the experience.
Their capsule landed about 500km (310 miles) north-east of Baikonur, near the Kazakh city of Dzhezkazgan.
Search and rescue teams were quickly on the scene and reported that Mr Hague and Mr Ovchinin were alive and well.
“The emergency rescue system worked, the vessel was able to land in Kazakhstan… the crew are alive,” Russia’s space agency Roscosmos tweeted. Nasa described them as being in good condition. They reportedly did not need medical treatment.
Nasa added that the two men were being taken to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre outside Moscow, and it was “monitoring the situation carefully”.
What happens now?
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said no further manned missions would take place “until we believe that the entire situation guarantees safety”.
He rejected suggestions it could harm US relations, saying they recognised it was a “hi-tech industry linked to risk”, but he added: “We certainly won’t conceal the reasons, it is uncommon for such situations”.
Russia’s space programme has suffered a number of mishaps in recent years. In September, a hole was found in one of its spacecraft already docked at the ISS, which Russia’s space agency said could have been made deliberately.
The crew already on the ISS will not be affected by Thursday’s aborted mission, Russia’s Tass news agency reported, quoting an unnamed source as saying they have enough supplies.
- Thursday’s incident is thought to be the first launch mishap for a Russian Soyuz booster since a Soyuz mission was aborted in 1983 when a rocket malfunctioned shortly after launch, and the crew vehicle was ejected to safety
- Russia’s space programme has faced a number of technical failures in recent years – a total of 13 since 2010. Last year, contact was lost with a Soyuz rocket’s Fregat upper stage, which was carrying a new weather satellite and 18 secondary satellites. Earlier in 2017, at least nine of a payload of 73 satellites were reported “dead on arrival or severely degraded” after separation from their Soyuz-2.1 launch vehicle
- In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule already docked to the ISS which caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched. In this instance, Russia said the hole may have been drilled “deliberately”
While space missions may often encounter technical difficulties, fatalities have been relatively rare:
- 2003: Seven astronauts died when the Columbia Space Shuttle broke up up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere due to a damaged heat shield
- 1986: Seven astronauts died when the fuel tank on board Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after lift off because of faulty seals on the booster rockets
- 1971: The three-men crew aboard Soyuz 11 suffocated as the result of an air leak after undocking from the Salyut 1 space station. They were found dead inside the capsule after landing
- 1967: Crash of Soyuz 1, with one cosmonaut killed as the spacecraft’s parachute, intended to slow down descent, became tangled on re-entry
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