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Russian rocket malfunctions during launch to space station; crew makes safe landing

Alan Boyle

An American and a Russian spaceflier are in good shape after they were forced to abort their trip to the International Space Station due to a rocket anomaly, but today’s scary launch has cast a pall over orbital operations going forward.

NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were due to begin a six-month stint in orbit with their launch from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, aboard a Soyuz spacecraft that was perched atop Russia’s workhorse Soyuz-FG rocket.

Just minutes after liftoff at 2:40 p.m. local time (1:40 a.m. PT), the rocket booster experienced an anomaly, and the ascent was aborted. Video showed puffs of smoke at high altitude.

The Soyuz spacecraft was thrown clear of the rocket and plunged back to Earth for a ballistic landing, with peak acceleration estimated at 6 to 7 G’s. After a nail-biting interval, a search and rescue team located the craft and retrieved Hague and Ovchinin in good condition.

NASA said the pair would be flown back to Russia’s Star City cosmonaut center, outside Moscow, for further examination and debriefing.

“Safety of the crew is the utmost priority for NASA,” the space agency said in a statement. “A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who has been visiting Russia and Kazakhstan in conjunction with today’s launch, said he was “grateful that everyone is safe.”

Russia’s space agency tweeted out pictures of the spacefliers sitting in a lounge in Kazakhstan after their retrieval from the Soyuz capsule, plus video showing them making their way to Baikonur:

NASA had pictures of the astronauts’ reunion with their families in Baikonur:

Crewed flights to the space station will be suspended while the investigation unfolds, and that’s likely to scramble the schedule of the station’s comings and goings. Russia’s Soyuz craft currently provides the only means to get to and from the orbital outpost. Two breeds of U.S.-built space taxis are being developed by SpaceX and Boeing, but the current schedule doesn’t call for them to carry astronauts until next June at the earliest.

Three spacefliers — NASA’s Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev and Germany’s Alexander Gerst — are currently aboard the station. They’re scheduled to ride a Soyuz that’s docked to the station back down to Kazakhstan in December, but that departure date may now be up for discussion.

If Soyuz launches are suspended for an extended period, one of the potential options would be to let the current crew return as planned and leave the station temporarily uncrewed. Such a scenario was considered in 2011 when one of Russia’s robotic Progress cargo ships was lost due to a rocket malfunction, forcing an investigation. In that case, Russian investigators gave the Soyuz a clean bill of health soon enough that mission managers could avoid having to go with the crewless option.

Today’s anomaly comes on top of an earlier setback for the space station program, involving an air leak in the Soyuz that’s currently docked to the station. The crew was able to track down the leak and patch up a small hole in the spacecraft’s hull, but the investigation of the cause is continuing. Speculation over whether the hole was made accidentally or intentionally has been a source of consternation for the long-running U.S.-Russian space relationship.

Here are some of the reactions and ruminations sparked by today’s abort, leading off with a view of the launch as seen from the International Space Station and as tweeted by its current commander, German astronaut Alexander Gerst. (You can clearly see the Soyuz rocket’s contrail in an enlarged version of the photo.)

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