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What it’s like to fall 31 miles to Earth after your rocket fails

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NASA astronaut Nick Hague recounts his experience during last week’s harrowing Soyuz flight

NASA astronaut Nick Hague (L) shakes hands with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine after landing back on Earth
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

For the first few minutes, the ride to space had been routine. NASA astronaut Nick Hague and his fellow crew mate, Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, were pressed into their seats inside a Russian Soyuz capsule as the vehicle rapidly climbed through the atmosphere. Then then there was a jolt.

“The first thing I really noticed was being shaken fairly violently from side to side,” Hague said during a round of broadcast interviews today.

The vehicle carrying Hague and Ovchinin had just taken off from Kazakhstan at 4:40AM ET (2:40PM local time). Just two and a half minutes into flight, the vehicle began to break apart. It’s still unclear what triggered the failure, but Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos thinks that there was some unintended contact during stage separation. On the Soyuz, four boosters surrounding the center core of the rocket are meant to break away during flight, but it’s possible one of the four crashed into the middle of the vehicle.

The shaking lasted just a few seconds, then an alarm went off inside the capsule. The alarm was quickly followed by the illumination of an emergency light, indicating a failure. “I knew once I saw that light that we had an emergency with the booster — that at that point we weren’t going to make it to orbit that day,” he said. Suddenly the mission had changed. Now the goal was to get back to Earth in one piece.

As soon as the failure occurred, the Soyuz capsule carrying Hague and Ovchinin switched into abort mode and separated away from the failing rocket. The astronauts experienced a brief moment of weightlessness while the capsule soared through the air. Then gravity soon took hold, and the vehicle started to fall back the 31 miles down to Earth. The crew members had begun what is known as a ballistic descent. “It’s like tossing a ball high into the air,” said Hague. “At some point gravity takes over and starts bringing it back down.”

During a ballistic descent, a capsule is coming in at a much steeper angle than a routine landing, which means it can rack up a higher amount of G-forces than normal. On a normal Soyuz descent, astronauts can experience up to 5 Gs. During Hague and Ovchinin’s descent, the pair pulled up to 6.7 Gs, representing 6.7 times the normal pull of Earth’s gravity. Such an episode can be intense for the human body, especially if the higher Gs are felt for a sustained amount of time. Fortunately, the crew only felt those higher forces for a few seconds, Hague says, before the capsule’s parachutes deployed. “Based on where the emergency occurred, we were pretty lucky.”

Hague, a veteran of the Air Force, says his military and astronaut training quickly took over. Those riding on the Soyuz always prepare for the rare event of a rocket failure, and the crew began procedures for landing. Also Hague says he has experienced failures before in the Air Force, so he knew the best thing to do was remain calm. “You realize that the training is there to keep you safe,” he said. “The thing that I can do to get us down on the ground as safe as possible is to try to stay as calm and as focused as I can.” As the capsule fell, Hague says he looked out the window to size up the terrain and determine if the capsule was falling in a controlled way.

Still this was meant to be Hague’s first trip to space, so every experience was new to him — including falling to Earth. He didn’t know to expect the specific motions inside the Soyuz and the jolts when the parachutes deployed. “Those are all sensations that, you know, we don’t get to simulate. Those feelings of being bounced around and thrown around inside the capsule,” he said. However, Ovchinin had gone through Soyuz descents before, and kept Hague in the loop about what was normal and what was abnormal.

Ovchinin and Hague embracing their families following the failed launch
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Just 34 minutes after the failure, the capsule safely parachuted down to Kazakhstan, and Hague and Ovchinin were on the ground. The two grinned “from ears to ears,” says Hague, and they both shook hands. A few jokes were cracked about how short their flight was. They quickly started calling everyone over the satellite phone to inform the world that they were safe. Hague says he called his wife, but the initial call went to her voicemail. “So now she’s got a voicemail she can keep as a memento for the rest of her life,” he said.

Emergency crews soon arrived at the landing site and transported Hague and Ovchinin back to Baikonur Cosmodrome, the site of their launch. That’s where they were reunited with their families. “Being able to finally hold my wife in my arms and give her a hug was just enormous,” Hague said. “It made me feel like, ‘Okay, yeah. I’m finally back and safe.’”

Now that he’s back in Houston, things are a bit uncertain for Hague. He doesn’t know when he’ll fly again, though he’s eager to get back on another mission. He also says he feels comfortable riding in the Soyuz again, as the emergency escape system ultimately saved his life. “This has only helped to solidify my appreciation for how robust that system is,” he said. “There is a launch abort system that protects me continuously from about an hour before launch until I’m in orbit. And at any moment in there, we can have a failure, and it’s going to protect me.”

Still, Hague says it was bittersweet for him to know how close he got to space. “I imagined that my first trip to space was going to be a memorable one,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be quite this memorable.”