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.