Astronauts land safely after Soyuz spacecraft malfunction

The Russian Soyuz rocket may well be one of the oldest spaceship designs out there, but it’s also regarded as one of the safest.

At least, that’s usually the case, except one malfunctioned today.

The rocket, manned by US astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, headed toward the International Space Station (ISS) for a six-month mission. The two men were supposed to join with the Expedition 57 crew already on the ISS. However, about 90 seconds into the launch, Hague and Ovchinin reported a malfunction with the rocket’s booster.

According to the NASA live stream, the booster encountered a problem between the first and second stages of separation, when a second-stage landing vehicle switched off. The malfunction caused the astronauts to feel weightless well before they should have. The footage shows the men inside being violently shaken inside the capsule.

NASA initiated an emergency landing as soon as the problem was detected. The capsule was immediately separated from the rocket, and the two men made their uncomfortable descent back to Earth.

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The capsule entered something called “ballistic descent,” and had to descend at a much sharper angle than is considered normal. Luckily for Hague and Ovchinin, the Soyuz capsule was prepared for such an event, and parachutes were deployed to slow their fall. Even so, the two men experienced 7Gs of pressure during their descent. A typical launch would see pressure reach 3G, which is uncomfortable, but certainly survivable.

The capsule landed some 500 km away from Baikonur, near Dzhezkazgan. Search and rescue teams were on the scene quickly to confirm that both Hague and Ovchinin were alive and well.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Yuri Borisov, confirmed that there will be no further manned missions “until we believe that the entire situation guarantees safety.” However, the aborted mission will not affect the crew already on the ISS.

This is the first Soyuz launch malfunction since 1983 – that incident, too, resulted in an aborted mission and a safe return for the onboard crew. However, there have been several non-fatal technical failures for Russia’s space programme in the past few years, including the loss of several satellites in 2017, and a hole appearing in a Soyuz capsule in August.

As of right now, Hague and Ovchinin are returning to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center just outside of Moscow, and do not appear to require any medical attention.


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