A booster rocket failed less than two minutes after launching an American and a Russian toward the International Space Station on Thursday, forcing an emergency — but safe — landing in Kazakhstan.
It was the latest in a recent series of failures for the troubled Russian space program, which is used by the United States to carry its astronauts to the station.
NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russia’s Alexei Ovchinin were subjected to heavy gravitational forces as their capsule automatically detached from the Soyuz booster rocket and fell back to Earth at a sharper-than-normal angle. They landed near the city of Dzhezkazgan.
“Thank God the crew is alive,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, when it became clear that they had landed safely.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who watched the launch at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome along with his Russian counterpart, tweeted that Hague and Ovchinin are in good condition. He added that a “thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”
Hague, 43, and Ovchinin, 47, lifted off as scheduled at 2:40 p.m. (4:40 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time) on Thursday from Baikonur. The astronauts were to dock at the International Space Station six hours after the launch and join an American, a Russian and a German currently aboard the station.
But the three-stage Soyuz booster suffered an failure of its second stage about two minutes after launching. Search-and-rescue teams were immediately scrambled to recover the crew, and paratroopers were dropped from a plane to reach the site quickly.
It was to be the first space mission for Hague, who joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013. Ovchinin spent six months on the orbiting outpost in 2016.
The astronauts were flown by helicopter to Dzhezkazgan and then by plane to Baikonur.
NASA posted pictures of Hague and Ovchinin undergoing a medical checkup at Dzhezkazgan’s airport. One of the pictures showed Hague smiling.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said all manned launches will be suspended pending an investigation into the cause of the failure. He added that Russia will fully share all relevant information with the United States.
The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is the only vehicle for ferrying crews to the space station following the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet. Russia stands to lose that monopoly in the coming years with the arrival of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsules.
The last time the Russian space program had a manned launch failure was in 1983. Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov landed safely near the launchpad after the Soyuz explosion.