“On Thursday at 4:40 a.m. Eastern time, NASA’s Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin launched aboard the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The two men were set for a sixth-month stint on the International Space Station—Hague’s first—but a booster problem during launch forced them to make a rare emergency landing. About two minutes into the ascent, Russian ground control could be heard referring to a “failure of the booster.” At the time of posting, audio of the incident is still available via NASA’s livestream of the event:
The crew, both of whom are reportedly in “good condition,” went into “ballistic descent mode,” which NASA tweeted involved “a sharper angle of landing compared to normal.” The capsule containing the astronauts successfully separated from the rocket booster and parachuted the ground, where rescue teams in helicopters rushed to meet them.
According to the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, the astronauts would have realized something was wrong “because they reported feeling weightless when they should have felt pushed back in their seats” by a booster separation. The ballistic descent would have been uncomfortable, but one they’d practiced for many times.
“I’m grateful that everyone is safe,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”
Another Soyuz rocket recently made headlines for apparent hardware failure: one docked to the ISS was found to have a tiny hole that some have speculated may be the result of sabotage—or perhaps just careless drilling on the ground. Currently, Russia’s Soyuz program is the only means we have of traveling to and from the ISS.
German astronaut Alexander Gerst posted a picture of the launch on Twitter:
What is a ballistic descent? Has it happened before?
During a normal descent, the spacecraft enters the atmosphere at a shallow angle. This causes the spacecraft to lift slightly, reducing the effects of gravitational forces on the astronauts within. Sometimes, though, that isn’t possible, and the ship has to re-enter at a steeper angle, like a projectile. The term refers to the study of the motion of projectiles, which is known as ballistics.
Soyuz missions have gone through ballistic descent before, but always during re-entry to the atmosphere. Soyuz 5 in 1969 went through a terrifying plummet toward the ground after the service module failed to separate. That landing was so rough it broke the teeth of one of the astronauts on board.
During a 2003 landing, cosmonauts made a ballistic descent 300 miles short of the landing zone. The crew had to abandon a gentler touchdown thanks to a technical malfunction, likely of the descent controls. A NASA report written for Congress in the wake of the Columbia disaster mentioned the incident, but noted that ballistic descent was one of the planned backup options for descent in the Soyuz, and was something that crew members were trained to endure.
In 2008, a Soyuz mission made a similar landing, descending 260 miles short of its planned landing zone in a terrifying drop that lasted 23 minutes.
But all those happened during re-entry, not launch. The closest comparison to what happened this morning would be events back in 1983, with the failure of the Soyuz T-10a mission on the launchpad. In that case, mission control aborted the launch before the final countdown finished, and the escape system propelled the cosmonauts free of the explosion, sending them back to Earth within moments.
What’s the Soyuz?
The Soyuz design has been around since 1962, and has been called “The most reliable spacecraft in the world in terms of its safety record.” It launched on its first crewed mission in 1967, with one cosmonaut, Vladimir Komorov, on board. The launch itself was successful, but the parachute failed on reentry, killing Komorov.
Despite that inauspicious start, the Soyuz remains to this day the launch system of choice for the Russians. It has been used in 139 crewed flights, the vast majority of them successful missions. Before today, the last failure of a Soyuz mission was the 1983 Soyuz T-10a mission.
What happens now?
Now that the crew is safe on the ground, as illustrated by the touching photo at the bottom of this post, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos has announced an investigation into what went wrong.
The Russian Soyuz program is currently the only way for astronauts from any space agency to access the ISS, making this failure important to NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and others involved in the Space Station. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine traveled to Kazakhstan to watch the launch, and meet with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin. They planned to talk about the mysterious hole recently found in a Soyuz attached to the ISS, but clearly will now have other matters to discuss.
There are currently three crew members on the International Space station. NASA’s Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Roscosmos’ Sergey Prokopyev, and the ESA’s Alexander Gerst were scheduled to return in December. Gerst took command of the ISS last week, when their three companions—Drew Feustel, Ricky Arnold, and Oleg Artemyev—departed back to Earth. Russian News Agency TASS said that the astronauts on board have enough supplies even without the expected Soyuz arrival, and that their operations will continue as scheduled.
The AP reports that Russia will temporarily suspend crewed launches while the investigation is ongoing. There are three more Soyuz missions planned, in December of this year and March and September of 2019. NASA will not begin running its own crewed flights until 2019 at the earliest.”