The two-man US-Russian crew of a Soyuz spacecraft en route to the International Space Station was forced to make a dramatic emergency landing in Kazakhstan yesterday when their rocket failed mid-air.
Nasa astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin landed safely and rescue crews who raced to locate them on the Kazakh steppe quickly linked up with them, the US space agency and Russia’s Roscosmos said.
It was the first serious launch problem experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983 when a fire broke out at the base of the booster rocket while the crew was preparing for lift-off. The crew narrowly escaped before a large explosion.
Yesterday's problem occurred when the first and second stages of a booster rocket, launched from the Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur in the central Asian country, were separating, triggering emergency systems soon after launch.
The capsule carrying the men then separated from the malfunctioning rocket and made “a steep ballistic descent to Earth with parachutes helping slow its speed”. A cloud of sand billowed up as it came down on the desert steppe.
The failure is a setback for the Russian space programme. Moscow suspended all manned space launches, the RIA news agency reported, while Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said he had ordered a state commission to be set up to investigate what went wrong.
The crew will spend a day in hospital in Baikonur for medical checks, Interfax quoted an unnamed source as saying.
Footage from inside the Soyuz had shown the two men being shaken around at the moment the failure occurred, with their arms and legs flailing. Ovchinin, the Russian cosmonaut, can be heard saying: “That was a quick flight.”
The emergency landing could become one of the biggest payouts for Russian insurance firm Soglasie in decades if it turns out to be an insurance case, Soglasie was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency. Reuters ANA