A Russian Soyuz rocket carrying two astronauts to the International Space Station failed this morning shortly after liftoff, forcing the two-man crew to make an emergency landing outside of Dzhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan. NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin safely parachuted to the ground in the Soyuz capsule 42 minutes after liftoff, according to statements from NASA and Roscosmos.
The launch lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40 a.m. ET, but just six minutes after launch, Roscosmos reported that there was an issue with the booster, as reported by Loren Grush at The Verge. Eleven minutes after liftoff, NASA tweeted that the “crew is returning to Earth in a ballistic descent mode,” meaning the spacecraft was falling to Earth without any propulsion. Recovery crews were able to contact the astronauts shortly after landing and reported that they were in “good condition,” according to a tweet from NASA at 5:26 a.m. ET.
This morning’s mishap is the fourth time in history the Soyuz space program has had to conduct a ballistic reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The contingency procedure sends the spacecraft carrying the crew on a “sharper angle of landing compared to normal,” NASA said. Such a landing is designed to decelerate rapidly to bring the astronauts back to the ground, meaning it takes a steep angle of descent and can put the astronauts under extreme gravitational forces, up to eight times normal gravity, as Joe Pappalardo at Popular Mechanics reports.
After American astronaut Peggy Whitson survived a ballistic reentry at about 8Gs in 2008, she compared the experience to a rollover car crash.
"It was just one big hit and a roll," she told CNN after the incident. "I felt my face getting pulled back. It was hard to breathe, and you kind of have to breathe through your stomach, using your diaphragm instead of expanding your chest."
This morning’s emergency landing, however, reached 6.7Gs, according to The Verge, while a normal controlled descent only hits about 4Gs.
The Chief of Roscosmos, Dmitri Rogozin, said in a tweeted statement that “a state commission” had been formed to investigate the cause of the malfunction. NASA also said in a statement that “NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the NASA team are monitoring the situation carefully,” and that a “thorough investigation” will be conducted.
Until the investigations are completed, there will be no official information about what caused the rocket’s failure to carry the crew to orbit. Eric Berger of Ars Technica reports that Russian sources said the failure occurred about two minutes into flight, suggesting the rocket had a problem during second stage separation, but the exact nature of the complication is unknown.
After this morning’s launch failed to reach orbit, the International Space Station is left with only three crewmembers aboard, commanded by German astronaut Alexander Gerst. William Harwood of CBS reports that the ISS crew was scheduled to return on December 13, though they have the ability to stay in orbit longer if required.
The launch failure raises questions about the continued reliability of Russia’s Soyuz launch system, which lost a cargo spacecraft at the end of 2016 and sent a Soyuz capsule with a hole in it to the ISS earlier this year. Both NASA and Roscosmos face pressure to quickly address the problem to maintain normal operations of the ISS.
But the most important thing is that the emergency abort procedure worked—the astronauts are alive.