A US astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut were forced to make an emergency landing after their Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned en route to the International Space Station (ISS).
Shortly after taking off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin reported a problem with the rocket’s booster.
The men were forced into a “ballistic descent”, with their capsule landing a few hundred miles north of Baikonur.
They have been picked up by rescuers.
“The search and recovery teams have reached the Soyuz spacecraft landing site and report that the two crew members… are in good condition and are out of the capsule,” US space agency Nasa said.
Russia said it was suspending any further manned flights, and an investigation into what went wrong had begun.
What happened to the rocket?
The launch appeared to be going smoothly, but some 90 seconds later Nasa, on its livestream, reported that a problem seemed to have occurred with the booster rocket between the first and second stages of separation.
Footage from inside the capsule showed the two men being shaken around at the moment that the fault happened.
Shortly afterwards, Nasa said they were making a “ballistic descent” meaning their capsule descended at a much sharper angle than normal and would have been subjected to greater G-force – the force imposed on a body by rapid acceleration.
The capsule separated from the failing rocket and later deployed parachutes to slow its descent.
Soyuz is one of the oldest rocket designs but also one of the safest. The malfunction appeared to occur around what is termed “staging”, where the ascending vehicle goes through the process of discarding its empty fuel segments.
The onboard astronauts were certainly aware that something was not right because they reported feeling weightless when they should have felt pushed back in their seats. The escape systems are tested and ready for exactly this sort of eventuality. It would have been an uncomfortable ride back to Earth, however. The crew would have experienced very sharp accelerations and decelerations on the return.
There is already much discussion about the current state of Russian industry and its ability to maintain the standards of yesteryear. Whatever the outcome of the inquiry, this event will only heighten those concerns and will underline to the US in particular the need to bring online new rocket systems. These vehicles, produced by the Boeing and SpaceX companies, are set to make their debut next year.
They seem to have been unharmed by the experience.
Search and rescue teams were quickly on the scene, 500km (310 miles) north-east of Baikonur, near the Kazakh city of Dzhezkazgan.
They reported that Mr Hague and Mr Ovchinin were alive and well and the Russian civilian space agency, Roscosmos, later issued photos of them having their hearts and blood pressure monitored.
“The emergency rescue system worked, the vessel was able to land in Kazakhstan… the crew are alive,” Roscosmos tweeted. Nasa described them as being in good condition. They reportedly did not need medical treatment.
Nasa added that the two men were being taken to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre outside Moscow, and it was “monitoring the situation carefully”.