An astronaut from the U.S. and another from Russia are safe after making an emergency landing in Kazakhstan following the failure of a Russian booster rocket that was supposed to propel them toward the International Space Station.
NASA’s Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos lifted off as scheduled at 4:40 a.m. ET from the Russia-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz booster rocket.
Roscosmos and NASA said the three-stage Soyuz booster suffered an emergency shutdown of its second stage. The capsule jettisoned from the booster and went into a ballistic descent, landing at a sharper-than-normal angle and subjecting the crew to heavy G-loads.
NASA said rescue teams have reached Hague and Ovchinin, and the astronauts been taken out of the capsule and were in good condition. The capsule landed about 20 kilometres east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.
The incident marks an unprecedented mishap for the Russian space program, which has been dogged by a string of launch failures and other incidents in recent years.
“Thank God, the crew is alive,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters when it became clear that the crew had landed safely. He said Putin is receiving regular updates about the situation.
The astronauts were to dock at the ISS six hours after the launch, but the Soyuz booster suffered an unspecified failure and shut down minutes after the launch.
Crew found 450 km away
Search and rescue teams were aboard helicopters immediately scrambled to recover the crew and other paratroopers were dropped from a plane to reach the site and help the rescue effort. Dzhezkazgan is about 450 kilometres northeast of Baikonur. Spacecraft returning from the ISS normally land in that region.
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.
Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, who watched the launch together with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, tweeted that a panel has been set up to investigate the cause of the booster failure.
Earlier this week, Bridenstine emphasized that collaboration with Russia’s Roscosmos remains important.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have sunk to post-Cold War lows over the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria and allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential vote, but they have maintained cooperation in space research.
The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle for ferrying crews to the ISS following the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet. Russia stands to lose that monopoly in the coming years with the arrival of the SpaceX’s Dragon v2 and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsules.
Canadian was backup crew member
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques is scheduled to launch aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on Dec. 20 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and remain on the station until June 2019.
“He would have been watching the failed launch from a great vantage point,” said CBC’s Chris Brown, reporting from Moscow. “He was the backup astronaut on this mission, so he was in Baikonur, ready to go just in case there was a problem with this two-man crew.”
“There’s now word from some senior people in the Russian government through the TASS news agency that the next flight seems to have been postponed,” Brown said.
Thursday marked the first manned launch failure for the Russian space program since September 1983, when a Soyuz exploded on the launch pad. Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov jettisoned and landed safely near the launch pad, surviving the heavy G-loads without injuries.
Russia has continued to rely on Soviet-designed booster rockets to launching commercial satellites, as well as crews and cargo to the International Space Station.
While Russian rockets had earned a stellar reputation for their reliability in the past, a string of failed launches in recent years has called into doubt Russia’s ability to maintain the same high standards of their manufacturing.
Glitches found in Russia’s Proton and Soyuz rockets in 2016 were traced to manufacturing flaws at the plant in Voronezh. Roscosmos sent more than 70 rocket engines back to production lines to replace faulty components, a move that resulted in a yearlong break in Proton launches and badly dented Russia’s niche in the global market for commercial satellite launches.
In August, the ISS crew spotted a hole in a Russian Soyuz capsule docked to the orbiting outpost that caused a brief loss of air pressure before being patched.
Rogozin, the Roscosmos chief, has raised wide consternation by saying that an air leak spotted at the International Space Station was a drill hole that was made intentionally during manufacturing or in orbit. He didn’t say if he suspected any of the current crew of three Americans, two Russians and a German aboard the station of malfeasance.
With files from CBC News
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