This morning’s launch of a Russian Soyuz mission carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin to the International Space Station started off like clockwork. But roughly four minutes into the flight something went wrong. Thankfully it wasn’t an explosion or critical failure, but the booster rocket failed in some fashion. It quickly became obvious that the astronauts weren’t going to make it to the ISS and they were forced to eject their capsule from the main rocket and make a “ballistic descent” back to Earth under the vehicle’s parachute. NBC News had some of the early details.
U.S. and Russian astronauts were forced to make an emergency landing Thursday after their booster rocket failed in mid-air moments after the launch, according to NASA.
The agency said search-and-rescue teams had reached the landing site in Kazakhstan and reported that the two crew members were out of the capsule and in “good condition.”
Russian agency Interfax said there was an “emergency shutdown of second-stage engines” when the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft launched.
NASA said that the Russian space agency is forming a state commission to investigate the incident.
Both Russian and American media are describing this as a technical failure with a happy ending and that’s certainly true. But it wasn’t quite as routine as some of the reports are making it sounds. Thankfully, both Hague and Ovchinin are reportedly in good condition, which is somewhat amazing considering the velocity of the capsule when it smashed into the ground in Kazakhstan. (They’re apparently designed for that type of impact.)
But check out the video of the launch coverage from SciNews. This video begins with the crew boarding and such, so if you want to skip the launch and get to the malfunction portion just skip ahead to the 4:15 mark. It’s rather remarkable because there’s an English-speaking broadcaster describing the events while, in the background, you can hear both NASA and Roscosmos staff at mission control speaking in both English and Russian. The difference between the reporter’s coverage and what you hear going on in the background is startling.
The bizarre part of this video is listening to the American reporter going through an obviously prepared script as the rocket ascends. Once the Soyuz reaches roughly 28 miles up, they switch the video over to an animation of what’s supposed to be happening as the stages separate and the vehicle climbs toward the ISS. And the reporter is cheerfully talking about how everything “looks good” and the astronauts are “on their way” to the space station. But in the background you can clearly hear both the English and Russian speaking controllers rapidly giving directions, using the word “emergency” several times. The Russian controller is heard using the phrase “ballistic descent” in a rather tense tone.
They keep asking questions about whether the capsule achieved separation and if there was still communication available. By this point, the reporter falls silent for a full three minutes while they sort out what’s going on with the craft. She finally begins speaking again just before the end of the video, confirming a problem with the booster but assuring everyone that the astronauts are in good shape.
Space launches are never actually “routine” and there’s always the chance of something going horribly wrong. The pressures involved are so great that it sometimes seems a miracle we make it into orbit at all. But the Russians clearly got something right in terms of safety. That Soyuz was on the edge of space when the failure took place, but they still got those two pilots safely back on the ground in a matter of minutes. Well done.
One interesting side note. NASA astronaut Nick Hague only joined the space program in 2013 and this was scheduled to be his very first launch into space. One has to wonder how that will play in his mind if and when he gets another chance to try. It’s not an auspicious start to say the least.