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A Soyuz rocket carrying a Russian and an American astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) malfunctioned only two minutes into its flight on Thursday and plummeted 30 miles back to earth. The crew survived the craft’s malfunction thanks to an automatic emergency landing outside the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan, and were quickly recovered unharmed by rescue teams and helicoptered into the city.
The two were expected to arrive for six-month missions aboard the ISS before the rocket failure. When an emergency light switched on, the capsule carrying the two men automatically aborted the mission and detached itself from the malfunctioning rocket. From there, the capsule began its “steep ballistic descent” to the ground, guided by a parachute, which ended
34 minutes later in a crash-landing in the desert. On the in-flight footage, the Russian astronaut Alexei Ovchinin can be heard saying, “That was a quick flight.”
The crash has raised major concerns for the temporary future of travel to and from the ISS. All scheduled manned launches have been canceled. “We have a lot of things planned through the rest of the fall and winter, and that’s all just being reassessed right now,” said Sam Scimemi, NASA’s ISS director. “We have resources well into the next year for this crew,” he said, referring to the crew currently aboard the ISS, “so there’s no concern about resources on board.” The U.S. retired its space shuttle program in 2011, and Russian rockets are currently the only means of transporting crew members to the ISS.
The Russian government has launched a criminal investigation into the malfunction, the first of its kind on a manned Russian craft since the Soviet era. Investigators are supposedly going to examine whether there was a violation of safety codes during the rocket’s construction. While manned expeditions have been a success in the past, the Russian space program has lost a number of satellites and smaller craft over the course of the past few years to similar mishaps.
“The main problem is that there are two fewer people at the station,” said Stefan Beransky, editor of Aerospatium magazine and author of a book on the Soyuz rocket. “As we wait for the conclusions of a Russian probe, the Soyuz will perhaps be grounded for some time.”
The head of the Russian space program, Roscosmos, is Dmitry Rogozin, a nationalist politician appointed by Putin who is currently subject to U.S. sanctions for his involvement in the Ukraine crisis. Rogozin recently clashed with U.S. officials after he accused American astronauts aboard the ISS of drilling a small hole into a Russian rocket in order to get a sick colleague sent home. On Friday, Rogozin posted a picture of himself with the two astronauts to his Twitter. “The guys will definitely fly,” he wrote above it. “We plan their flight for the spring of next year.”
Because of the capsule’s sharp descent, the two astronauts were subject to about eight times the force of gravity. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson described a similar experience in 2008, when her Soyuz was forced into a ballistic trajectory on her trip back to earth from the space station. For Whitson, the transition was from six months of weightlessness on the ISS to eight times her normal weight. “I saw 8.2 G’s on the meter and it was pretty, pretty dramatic,” she said. “Gravity’s not really my friend right now and 8 G’s was especially not my friend.”
The failed mission was a particular blow for the American astronaut Nick Hague, who had never flown to space. The shuttle failure occurred on threshold that marks the transition from earth’s atmosphere to outer space, and the capsule did not quite make it across. Once he joined the crew at the ISS, Hague was supposed to be one of the spacewalkers – astronauts who exit the station to make repairs or conduct experiments.
“Thank you all for your support and heartfelt prayers. Operational teams were outstanding in ensuring our safety and returning us to family and friends,” Hague said on Friday. “Working with our international partners, I’m confident that we will find a path forward and continue the achievements of [the ISS].”