A normally reliable Soyuz FG rocket malfunctioned two minutes after liftoff from Kazakhstan Thursday. The malfunction forced a Russian cosmonaut and his NASA crewmate to execute an emergency abort and a steep-but-safe return to Earth a few hundred miles from the launch site. Russian recovery crews reported the crew came through the ordeal in good shape.
“NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are in good condition following today’s aborted launch,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted from Kazakhstan. “I’m grateful that everyone is safe. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”
Ovchinin and Hague blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 4:40 a.m. EDT (GMT-4; 2:40 p.m. local time), kicking off what was expected to be a four-orbit six-hour flight to the International Space Station.
But two minutes and two seconds after liftoff, just a few seconds after the rocket’s four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters separated from the central core stage, something went wrong.
“Failure of the booster,” a translator called out, presumably relaying a report from Ovchinin to Russian mission control near Moscow. “Failure of the booster.” Moments later, he confirmed the Soyuz had separated from the rocket’s upper stage, saying “we are in weightlessness.”
Moments after that, as the spacecraft plunged back into the thick lower atmosphere, it rapidly decelerated, subjected the crew to nearly seven times the normal force of gravity at one point.
“We are getting ready for the G loads,” Ovchinin reported. “G load is 6.7.”
“Copy,” a Russian flight controller replied.
“We are feeling rotation, the G load is going down,” the cosmonaut reported. “G load is 2.72 and going down.”
“Tighten the straps” for landing, the flight controller called.