Soyuz MS-10 crewmen Alexei Ovchinin of Russia and NASA’s Nick Hague have performed an emergency return to Earth and landed safely in Kazakhstan, following a failure in their Soyuz-FG booster. The two men—with Ovchinin making his second launch, having previously spent a half-year in space in 2016, and Hague on his first flight—were launched on time from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 2:40 p.m. local time (4:40 a.m. EDT) Thursday, 11 October. However, within minutes, ominous reports of a booster “failure” emerged over the airwaves from the Russian launch announcer and the crew performed a high-G ballistic descent back to Earth. When search and rescue forces reached them, Ovchinin and Hague had exited the Soyuz MS-10 descent module and were described as in good condition and healthy.
According to NASA, they were flown via Karaganda Airport back to the Gagarin cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow. “NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the NASA team are monitoring the situation carefully,” noted a NASA news release. “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.”
Thursday began traditionally for Ovchinin and Hague, with wake-up in Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel about 8.5 hours before launch. The crew showed and were disinfected, then submitted to microbial samples in support of the biomedical experiments to be performed aboard the International Space Station (ISS). After ceremonially autographing the doors of their hotel rooms and receiving a blessing from a Russian Orthodox priest, Ovchinin and Hague were bussed to Site 254 to don their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits. They were then transported to Site 1/5, which is the same location from which Yuri Gagarin began his pioneering mission into space, way back in April 1961.
Liftoff occurred on time and the early phase of ascent appeared entirely nominal, with more than 930,000 pounds (422,000 kg) of thrust produced by the single RD-108 first-stage engine and the RD-107 engines of the Soyuz-FG’s four tapering, strap-on boosters. It was expected that a smooth launch would put Soyuz MS-10 on course for a six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous” to reach the space station. However, shortly after launch, with the rapidly ascending rocket merely a high-altitude glow to ground-based spectators, the first indications arose that all was not well. Ominous calls of “booster failure” were heard, via the translated words of the Russian launch announcer, and Soyuz MS-10 entered into a steep, high-G ballistic descent profile, heading for touchdown near the city of Dzhezkazgan, in the Karaganda region of central Kazakhstan.
NASA’s Brandi Dean, commentating on today’s launch, reported that search and rescue helicopters and ground forces had been scrambled by 4:55 a.m. EDT—only 15 minutes after launch—and were expected to arrive in the vicinity of the predicted landing zone about 90 minutes later. “Soyuz crew did not achieve orbit…and made a ballistic re-entry,” tweeted shuttle and Soyuz veteran Mike Fossum. “Expect higher G-loads for this profile. SAR teams en-route. Praying.”
In the meantime, at 5:20 a.m. EDT, Ms. Dean declared the relieving news that Soyuz MS-10 had landed safely, about 12 miles (20 km) east of Dzhezkazgan, and that Ovchinin and Hague were in radio communications with the search and rescue forces. It was revealed that both crewmen were healthy and in otherwise good condition. High-G ballistic re-entries were also experienced by several previous Soyuz crews, including Soyuz TMA-1 in May 2003, which brought the first crew safely back to Earth in the wake of the Columbia disaster, and Soyuz TMA-11 in April 2008, which landed 295 miles (475 km) off-course, following a pyro-bolt malfunction which prevented the instrument module from separating smoothly from the descent module. A similar contingency had also occurred during the return of Soyuz TMA-10 in October 2007.
Other astronauts who have flown the Soyuz paid tribute to its reliable engineering. “Soyuz has no black zones,” tweeted veteran NASA flier Kevin Ford, who launched aboard Soyuz TMA-06M in October 2012. “The crew can survive booster failures at any point during ascent.”
However, today’s events mark a startling break from “normality”, as the Soyuz has not failed to deliver a crew into orbit for more than three decades. Including today’s launch, 139 Soyuz spacecraft have flown in over a half-century of active service. Four fatalities were experienced on two early Soyuz missions, but an actual ascent emergency, high-G ballistic descent and forced landing occurred only once. In April 1975, Soyuz 18A cosmonauts Vasili Lazarev and Oleg Makarov suffered a booster malfunction a few minutes after launch, when the central core failed to separate from the third stage.
At an altitude of 90 miles (145 km), the spacecraft separated from the rocket and for a second or two the cosmonauts experienced weightlessness, before beginning a steep, ballistic descent. It was noted at the time that Lazarev and Makarov would ordinarily have endured up to 15 G, but actually experienced 21.3 G of deceleration, whose gravitational effects the crew described as “creeping and unpleasant”. Soyuz 18A’s descent module touched down in the Altai Mountains, about 515 miles (830 km) north of the Chinese border.
It would appear, thankfully, that Soyuz MS-10’s descent was considerably smoother than that of Soyuz 18A. By the time the search and rescue forces arrived, they reported that Ovchinin and Hague had exited the descent module. In the wake of the Soyuz MS-10 contingency, Russia has established a State Commission to investigate the circumstances, but Ms. Dean did not anticipate a press conference today. “NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin are in good condition following today’s aborted launch,” tweeted NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was witnessing his first manned launch since becoming the head of the space agency. “I’m grateful that everyone is safe. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”