A two-man crew bound for the International Space Station was forced to make an emergency landing when their Soyuz rocket failed shortly after blast-off on Thursday, in a major setback for Russia’s beleaguered space industry.
US astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin were rescued without injuries in Kazakhstan.
Russian investigators said they were launching a criminal probe into the incident, the first accident on such a manned flight in the country’s post-Soviet history. The Russian space industry has suffered a series of problems in recent years, including the loss of a number of satellites and other spacecraft.
“The emergency rescue system worked, the vessel was able to land in Kazakhstan… the crew are alive,” the Russian space agency Roscosmos said in a tweet. “An accident with the booster, two minutes, 45 seconds,” the voice of Ovchinin could be heard saying calmly in live-streamed footage of the launch from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome.
The incident came as the rocket was travelling about 4,700 miles (7,563 kilometres) per hour, just 119 seconds into the voyage, according to NASA.
“Shortly after launch, there was an anomaly with the booster and the launch ascent was aborted, resulting in a ballistic landing of the spacecraft,” the US space agency said in a statement.
Rescue workers reached the site of the emergency landing and evacuated Ovchinin and Hague. Roscosmos published pictures of the men on a sofa in the Kazakh city of Zhezkazgan, having their blood pressure taken.
The descent was sharper than usual, meaning the crew was subjected to a greater G-force, but they were prepared for this scenario in training, according to a commentator on NASA’s video livestream of the launch.
“We’re tightening our seatbelts,” Ovchinin said in the video. “That was a short flight.”
Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told news agencies that Russia, the only country currently taking crew to and from the ISS, would suspend manned flights.
The European Space Agency, whose astronaut Alexander Gerst is on the ISS, said in a statement that “the aborted launch will have influence on the planning for the near future”.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said that “an investigative group has been formed”.
“Officials are currently examining the launch site, documents are being seized,” it said in a statement.
The probe would seek to determine whether safety regulations had been violated during construction, causing major damage, the statement said. “Thank God the cosmonauts are alive,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
There have been two similar Soviet-era accidents involving the Soyuz spacecraft, which are still used to ferry crews to and from the ISS.
In 1975, Oleg Makarov and Vasily Lazarev made a successful emergency landing in Siberia’s Altai mountains following problems during booster separation. Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov survived a fire during launch in Kazakhstan in 1983.
Former military pilots Ovchinin and Hague had been set to join the ESA’s Gerst, NASA’s Serena Aunon-Chancellor and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos following a six-hour flight.
The International Space Station — a rare point of cooperation between Moscow and Washington — has been orbiting the Earth since 1998.
But even the space station has proved a source of controversy in recent weeks. Russian space officials have said they are investigating whether a hole that caused an oxygen leak on the ISS was drilled deliberately by astronauts.
The hole was detected in August and quickly sealed up, but Russian newspapers said Roscosmos was probing the possibility that US crewmates had sabotaged the space station to get a sick colleague sent back home.
Dmitry Rogozin, a firebrand nationalist politician who this year was appointed by Putin to head Roscosmos, said a “thorough investigation” was needed after the failed launch.
“It’s a dramatic situation but it was possible to avoid a very much worse turn of events,” he said in televised remarks.
He was shown talking to the astronauts after they arrived in Zhezkazgan. The politician has clashed with the US, suggesting American astronauts should use trampolines instead of Russian rockets to reach the ISS after Washington imposed sanctions over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.