Soyuz launch to ISS aborted after booster failure; crew safe

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Updated at 11:05 a.m. Eastern.

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — An American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut are reported to be in good condition after a problem with their Soyuz rocket minutes after liftoff Oct. 11 forced them to abort their mission to the International Space Station and make an an emergency landing in Kazakhstan.

A Soyuz rocket carrying the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40 a.m. Eastern. The launch appeared to be normal until around first stage separation, when the crew reported a “failure” with the booster and feeling weightlessness.

NASA Television reported that the spacecraft was in a ballistic descent after apparently separating from the Soyuz rocket, making a return to Earth rather than heading to the International Space Station. Search and rescue crews arrived at landing site 20 kilometers east of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan. They reported that the two people onboard were in “good condition” and were extracted from the capsule about 90 minutes after liftoff.

In a brief presentation at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here Oct. 11, Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut who returned from five and a half months on the ISS in late February, said the anomaly took place 119 seconds after liftoff, a second after first stage separation. He added the cause the the anomaly is still unknown.

The abort took place several seconds after the launch abort tower on top of rocket was jettisoned, leaving a shroud surrounding the Soyuz that has abort thrusters of its own. “Somewhere around 119 seconds, those thrusters on the shroud took the crew safely away from whatever the problem was,” he said.

Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague pose in front of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft in September. Credit: Victor Zelentsov/NASA
Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague pose in front of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft in September. Credit: Victor Zelentsov/NASA

The Soyuz was carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague, making his first spaceflight, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, making his second. The two were to arrive at the ISS about six hours after liftoff for a half-year stay.

“NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the NASA team are monitoring the situation carefully,” the agency said in a statement issued about two hours after the launch. “NASA is working closely with Roscosmos to ensure the safe return of the crew. Safety of the crew is the utmost priority for NASA. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”

Roscosmos announced that a “state commission” has been formed to investigate the anomaly. No media updates are expected on that effort for the rest of the day.

A Soyuz failure could jeopardize continued operation of the International Space Station. Soyuz is currently the only means for crews to travel to and from the station, with commercial crew vehicles by Boeing and SpaceX not expected to be ready to enter service before the middle of 2019. The current Soyuz on the ISS, Soyuz MS-09, launched in June and has an orbital lifetime of about 200 days.