The Associated Press
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan–Two astronauts from the U.S. and Russia were safe today after an emergency landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan following the failure of a Russian booster rocket carrying them to the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin lifted off as scheduled at 2:40 p.m. (local time) from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan but their Soyuz booster rocket failed about two minutes after the launch.
The rescue capsule automatically jettisoned from the booster and went into a ballistic descent–landing at a sharper-than-normal angle and subjecting the crew to heavy gravitational force.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who watched the launch at Baikonur 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.”
The capsule landed about 20 km east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.
The astronauts were flown by helicopter to Dzhezkazgan and later will be taken to Star City, Russia’s space training centre outside Moscow.
The launch failure marks an unprecedented mishap for the Russian space program, which has been dogged by a string of launch failures and other incidents in recent years.
“Thank God the crew is alive,” Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters when it became clear that the crew had landed safely.
He added the president was receiving regular updates about the situation.
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 to dock at the International Space Station six hours after the launch but the three-stage Soyuz booster suffered an unspecified failure of its second stage.
Search-and-rescue teams immediately were scrambled to recover the crew, and paratroopers were dropped from a plane to reach the site and help the rescue effort.
Dzhezkazgan is about 450 km northeast of Baikonur and spacecraft returning from the ISS normally land in that region.
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 U.S.
Today’s failure was the first manned launch failure for the Russian space program since September, 1983, when a Soyuz exploded on the launch pad.
Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov jettisoned and landed safely near the launch pad, surviving without injuries.