Space Crew Survive Plunge to Earth After Soyuz Launch Aborts
(Bloomberg) -- A booster failure more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth during a Soyuz rocket launch Thursday forced the two crew members to abort their mission to the International Space Station and make the first emergency landing for the Russian-built craft since 1975.
American Nick Hague and Russian Alexey Ovchinin landed safely after an “anomaly with the booster” prompted the ascent to be aborted, NASA head Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. The mission would have been Hague’s first space flight. Search and rescue teams reported the men are in good condition after making a ballistic descent, which has “a sharper angle of landing compared to normal,” NASA said on Twitter.
“Thank god, the cosmonauts are alive,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “The crew’s safety systems worked.”
The booster failed about 2 minutes and 45 seconds into the flight, when an emergency signal began beeping with the rocket traveling at 4,700 miles per hour more than 50 miles above the Earth, according to NASA’s live stream of the launch on YouTube.
“Two minutes forty five seconds,” Ovchinin said, according to the video. “There’s an accident on the carrier. We had a fast flight.”
The crew landed near Jezkazgan, Kazakhstan, about 250 miles from their launch site at Baikonur, Russia’s Roscosmos space agency said on Twitter. Photos on its account showed the men getting their vital signs checked before a flight back to the Kazakh cosmodrome.
Russia may indefinitely postpone its next manned Soyuz launch planned for December, state-owned RIA Novosti reported, citing an unidentified person. The space station has enough food and supplies for the current crew to last six months, the Interfax news service reported, citing an unidentified person.
“This is the result of a systemic crisis in our space industry,” said Alexander Zheleznyakov, a member of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics. “The best-case scenario is for the current crew to prolong its stay on the ISS until January or February when a new craft will be ready for launch.”
The incident was the first-ever failure of the Soyuz-FG, according to information on the Roscosmos site. The model is scheduled to be phased out by 2020 in favor of a new generation and there are six remaining rockets, excluding the one that failed Thursday, Interfax reported in July, citing an unidentified person in the industry.
A government commission has been formed to investigate the cause of the accident, according to a tweet from Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos.
The incident comes as the U.S. has been making progress in its quest to end Russia’s monopoly on manned flights to the ISS by encouraging private companies to produce rockets. In his first trip to Baikonur as NASA head, Bridenstine attended the launch with Rogozin as part of an effort to mend relations between the two space superpowers strained by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Explorations Technologies Corp. and Boeing Co. have contracts to deliver astronauts to the ISS starting next year, which may threaten a key source of funding for Russia’s space program. Roscosmos has earned billions of dollars in fees ferrying astronauts into orbit since NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011. Rogozin accused Musk on state television last week of selling seats on SpaceX at below cost to undermine Russia’s market share.
Thursday’s aborted mission is another setback for Russia’s space program. Most recently, a mysterious hole was detected on the Russian section of the ISS in August, and a Soyuz launch failure destroyed 18 satellites in November 2017.
Since its debut in the Soviet Union in 1966, the Soyuz has been the most-used launch vehicle in history. In 1975, a manned Soyuz failed to separate between stages during an ascent and triggered the abort system. Its crew survived.
(A previous version of this story corrected the rocket’s speed in the fourth paragraph)
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