Russian Rocket Fails, and 2 Astronauts Make Safe Emergency Return


More than 40 miles above Earth and hurtling toward space faster than a rifle bullet, a rocket carrying an American astronaut, a Russian cosmonaut and hundreds of tons of explosive fuel failed less than two minutes after liftoff on Thursday, forcing the crew to make a harrowing but safe emergency landing.

The capsule parachuted to Earth about 12 to 15 miles outside Zhezqazghan, a small city in central Kazakhstan, and neither of the crew members was injured, both the Russian and American space agencies said.

Russian state TV broadcast pictures of the capsule sitting in the middle of a flat, barren landscape dotted with low shrubs. The two astronauts — Nick Hague of the United States and Aleksei Ovchinin of Russia — walked to a rescue helicopter that whisked them back to the Baikonur Cosmodrome where their ill-fated voyage began.

Soon after, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, tweeted a picture of the two men sitting and speaking with Dmitri O. Rogozin, the head of the Russian agency.

The first sign of trouble was reported publicly eight minutes after the liftoff of the Russian Soyuz rocket, when NASA tweeted, “There’s been an issue with the booster from today’s launch.”

According to a Russian space official cited by Interfax, “the emergency occurred 119 seconds into the flight, during the separation of the side boosters of the first stage from the central booster of the second stage.” The second-stage booster rocket shut down.

Roscosmos, anticipating a successful launch, had already posted a glowing description of the flight on its Facebook page when the problems occurred.

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Eleven minutes after NASA’s first tweet, the agency added, “The crew is returning to Earth in a ballistic descent mode,” meaning that it was falling without propulsion and that its direction was determined only by the craft’s momentum, later braked by a parachute landing.

The agency added that ballistic descent means “a sharper angle of landing compared to normal,” which indicates a threat to the crew’s safety. The angle of the capsule’s descent is normally carefully calibrated so that it does not overheat when plunging back through the Earth’s atmosphere.

Forty-two minutes after liftoff, NASA tweeted that the Soyuz capsule had landed back on Earth. A search team was dispatched and soon afterward, NASA added, rescuers reported that they were in contact with the Soyuz crew, who reported that they were “in good condition.”

A little more than an hour after launch, Mr. Rogozin said on Twitter that the crew had been rescued. “A state commission has been established to investigate the causes” of the failure, he added.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told journalists in Moscow: “Thank God the cosmonauts are alive. This is the main thing.”

Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, was at the launch, which occurred at 4:40 a.m. Eastern Time.

Russia announced that it was suspending missions to the International Space Station until the cause of the failure had been determined.

The three astronauts currently on the space station — Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor of NASA and Sergey Prokopyev of Russia — arrived in June and had been scheduled to return in December. Their stay is now likely to be extended as the Soyuz is the only vehicle currently available to take people to and from space.

However, the remaining astronauts will have to devote most of their time to running the station instead of conducting scientific experiments. Some major work, like planned spacewalks to replace old batteries, may need to be juggled or delayed.

The Russian space agency is already investigating an earlier incident in August when a leak was discovered in another Soyuz capsule docked at the space station. The still unexplained hole appeared to have been deliberately drilled leading to wild speculation in Russian media that NASA astronauts committed sabotage.

Soyuz rockets, in various versions, have been the mainstay of the Soviet and Russian space programs since the 1960s, and they have reliably carried astronauts into space with no fatal failures.

In 1983, a Soyuz caught fire and exploded on the launchpad, but two astronauts were safely carried away by the spacecraft’s escape system.

Since ending its space shuttle program in 2011, the United States has relied more heavily on other countries — especially Russia — and private contractors to launch payloads and people into orbit. NASA is paying SpaceX and Boeing to develop new crew-carrying spacecraft. But with repeated delays in their testing — the latest of which was announced last week — those capsules will not be operational until next year at the earliest.

Other Russian rockets ferrying goods aloft in recent years have had a checkered record, including the Progress, which is almost identical to the Soyuz spacecraft. In December 2016, a Progress carrying 2.6 tons of food, fuel and supplies — but no astronauts — to the space station failed to reach orbit and largely burned up in the atmosphere as it fell back down. In 2015, another Progress cargo ship spun out of control, and was also destroyed as it fell back to Earth.

Follow Neil MacFarquhar and Richard Pérez-Peña on Twitter: @NeilMacFarquhar and @perezpena.

Neil MacFarquhar reported from Moscow, Richard Pérez-Peña from London and Kenneth Chang from New York. Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.



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