A NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonaut had to make an emergency landing on Earth this morning after the Russian Soyuz rocket carrying them into orbit experienced a failure during launch. The two crew members — astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin — safely landed on the ground in Kazakhstan less than an hour after liftoff and are in “good condition,” according to NASA.
The crew took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40AM ET. About six minutes after launch, Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos said that there was a problem with the booster during the flight. The failure prompted the crew to make a ballistic reentry when the Soyuz capsule enters Earth’s atmosphere at a steeper angle than normal. Rescue teams reached the landing site and transported the crew out of the Soyuz capsule. Hague and Ovchinin were then flown by helicopter to Jezkazgan.
Search and rescue teams report they are in contact with the Soyuz crew, who report they are in good condition. The teams are en route to the landing site. Live updates: https://t.co/mzKW5uDsTi pic.twitter.com/Z6RXKMKLfg— NASA (@NASA) October 11, 2018
Ballistic reentries can be intense for astronauts because they experience higher G forces. With a normal Soyuz landing, crews riding in the vehicle usually pull around 4 Gs. That can double for ballistic reentries. In 2008, a Soyuz experienced a malfunction during landing, prompting a ballistic reentry that reached up to 8 Gs. “I saw 8.2 G’s on the meter and it was pretty, pretty dramatic,” former NASA astronaut Pegg Whitson, who was on the flight, said in a statement, according to Wired. “Gravity’s not really my friend right now and 8 G’s was especially not my friend. But it didn’t last too long.” However, today’s crew pulled just 6.7 Gs, according to a recording on NASA TV.
Roscosmos has announced that it is forming a state commission to investigate the failure. The Russian state corporation says it is already studying the data from the launch. NASA says that it is also analyzing what happened. “NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the NASA team are monitoring the situation carefully,” the space agency said in a statement. “NASA is working closely with Roscosmos to ensure the safe return of the crew. Safety of the crew is the utmost priority for NASA. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.” Roscosmos said it would not hold a press conference today.
This is the second problem with a Soyuz vehicle in the last few months. In August, the crew members on board the ISS noticed that air was leaking from the station and traced the problem to a hole in one of the docked Soyuz capsules. The leak was patched up just fine, but Roscosmos has been trying to figure out how and when the hole was made. Russia ruled out the idea that it was made by a micrometeoroid impact and has suggested it looks like it was made by a drill. The incident has caused quite a bit of drama, with Russian media suggesting in-space sabotage and NASA coming out against those claims.
But today’s failure could have even more significant repercussions for NASA’s human spaceflight program moving forward. It’s unlikely that Russia will launch a crewed Soyuz mission until it has figured out what exactly went wrong during this flight. However, the Soyuz is NASA’s only means of getting astronauts to the International Space Station at the moment. Two private US companies — SpaceX and Boeing — are developing vehicles to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. However, the first crewed flights of that program are not slated to occur until summer of next year at the earliest.
Meanwhile, there are still three people on board the ISS at the moment: NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, German astronaut Alexander Gerst, and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev. The trio launched to the station on June 6th on a Russian Soyuz vehicle. However, their Soyuz capsule can only last in orbit around 200 days, meaning the crew will need to come down by the end of the year. If the Soyuz rocket is not back in operation by then, it’s possible the ISS may be abandoned for some unknown amount of time.
We will continue to update this post when we receive more information.
Update October 11th, 7AM ET: This post was updated to include more context about recent events on the space station.