NASA: ISS crew make emergency landing after booster failure

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Malfunctioning Soyuz rocket

NASA has reported a technical malfunction during a launch of an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut to the ISS. The two pilots were recovered after their Soyuz capsule crash landed in Kazakhstan.

An American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut aborted their flight to the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday after a booster failure on the Soyuz spacecraft.

"The Soyuz capsule is returning to Earth via a ballistic descent, which is a sharper angle of landing compared to normal," said NASA mission control in Houston.

During their plunge to the surface, the two-man crew was forced to endure 6.7 times the force of gravity, according to Russian controllers.

Rookie astronaut Nick Hague and veteran cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin "have been in contact with rescue forces," NASA said.

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'Drinking tea and cracking jokes'

The Soyuz capsule landed approximately 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) east of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan, some 450 kilometers (280 miles) from the Baikonur launchpad.

Search and rescue teams were deployed and reached the landing site roughly an hour after the vessel commenced emergency maneuvers.

Both Hague and Ovchinin were recovered and debriefed by Thursday afternoon, according to the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

"Thank God, the crew is alive," said Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitri Peskov.

A Roscosmos source told the Interfax news agency that the two men were "feeling fine."  

"They were examined by the medics and they have no health issues," the source said. "They are drinking tea and cracking jokes."

The agency subsequently tweeted a video of both the main and the replacement crew boarding a flight back to Russia-leased Baikonur cosmodrome.

Despite the rocket failure, Russia still plans to go ahead with its next manned flight to the ISS, the state-funded TASS news agency cited a Russian space agency official as saying on Friday.

Sergei Krikalev said the plans for December could change depending on the results of a commission set up to investigate the
incident, according to TASS.

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Stuck on the ISS?

The Russian-made spacecraft was expected to dock at the ISS within six hours after blastoff from Baikonaur on Thursday, but the crew was forced to abort the mission only two minutes into the flight. After the crash landing, Russian authorities ordered an investigation into the malfunction that triggered the booster failure.

Moscow immediately suspended all manned space launches pending investigation.

Soyuz capsules are currently the only vehicle capable of transporting humans to the ISS and back to Earth. A Soyuz spacecraft, docked at the space station, is set to bring down three of the crew in December: German Alexander Gerst, American Serena Aunon-Chancellor, and Russian Sergey Prokopiev. 

US astronaut Nick Hague (L) met Roscomos chief Dmitry Rogozin (R) after the crash landing in Dzhezkazgan

Following the failed launch on Thursday, the European Space Agency said it was making contingency plans in case that that three are forced to stay on longer than expected. According to NASA, however, the batteries in the docked vehicle could lose power by January 2019, presenting a complication if the Soyuz program is not reactivated by then.

The station is regularly resupplied by Japanese and American unmanned vehicles.

The ISS team has already postponed two spacewalks scheduled for this month, including one set to be done by Hague.

US-Russia cooperation in space is one of the few remaining areas untouched by Washington's sanctions against Moscow, with the US relying on Russia's Soviet-era Soyuz rockets to ferry their astronauts to orbit.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

On the way to the launchpad

A Soyuz rocket is on the way to its launchpad in Baikonur. German astronaut Alexander Gerst will take off - along with a Russian and US colleague - on June 6 to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard such a rocket.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

Famous predecessors

The first mammals that safely went to space and back took of from Baikonur: Belka and Strelka travelled along with a rabbit, 40 mice and two rats. All were safely recovered in the Kazakh desert. It was the first proof that manned space travel was possible.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

The first man in space

Yuri Gagarin took off on April 12, 1961 from Baikonur. He was the first man to circle Earth in a full orbit. Trained as a metal caster, Gagarin was still in training to become a military pilot when he was chosen as a cosmonaut for the first flight.

Yuri Gagarin's capsule (picture alliance/dpa)

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

Safe landing

Gagarin's space capsule after successfully landing in Kazakhstan. His flight established the cosmodrome in Baikonur for the coming centuries as the main Soviet center for space exploration. Additionally, the Soviet Union built its Star City near Moscow as a center for research and development.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

The first woman in space

Valentina Tereshkova gives a salute before departing into space on June 16, 1963 from Baikonur. For the Soviet Union, the flight was a strong and confident signal for the emancipation of women.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

Soviet, Russian, Kazakh

A statue of Lenin in Baikonur against the backdrop of a cloud-covered super moon on November 14, 2016. Soviet heritage is clearly visible in the city of Baikonur. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cosmodrome remained Russian sovereign territory. Russia signed a contract with Kazakhstan until 2050.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

Where space travellers from all over the world come and go

Since the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program, the cosmodrome in Baikonur has been the only place on Earth for manned space travel. All flights are conducted with Soyuz spaceships, and all go to the ISS. Here are: Randolph Bresnik (NASA), Paolo Nespoli (ESA) and Sergei Ryazansky (Roskosmos) boarding in July 2017.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

Launching commercial cargo

There is more competition for satellite launches: ESA has it's space port in Kourou, NASA several in the US. Nonetheless, Baikonur is serving more and more western companies looking to put cargo into orbit. This Proton roket is carrying British telecommunication satellites.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

Proven workhorse

Right now, the preparations are in high gear for a new Soyus launch with three travellers to the ISS - like on this older picture.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

Experience, never routine

Alexander Gerst knows the procedures: May 28, 2014 was his last time getting into the Soyuz capsule for a launch. This time around excitement is just as high.

Baikonur - from Soviet space port to an international astronaut hub

A new spaceport in Siberia

Russia does not want to meke itself totally dependent on Kazakhstan. Since last year it began launching rockets from its new spaceport Vostochny in the Amur region of Siberia. For security reasons, no manned space travel is allowed there, yet. But satellites are already being launched into orbit. After all, Baikonur will still continue to serve more generations of cosmonauts and astronauts.

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ls, dj/ng (Reuters, AP, Interfax)