Soyuz Crew Performs Ballistic Reentry After Booster Fails During Launch

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A Russian Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft experienced an “anomaly” during liftoff today while carrying two passengers en route to the International Space Station (ISS). That’s a diplomatic way to say the Russian booster failed, forcing the crew to perform a risky launch abort. The two crew members, astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, made it back to the surface safe and sound. However, this could be a problem for the current ISS crew.

The doomed booster left Earth behind at 4:40 AM ET today (Oct. 11), and everything seemed fine for the first several minutes. Despite its age, the Soyuz platform has been an extremely reliable mode of transportation to space. NASA purchased seats aboard Soyuz capsules for access to the ISS following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. This looked like another uneventful Soyuz launch for the first several minutes, but then the live feed showed increasingly violent shaking inside the cabin (about 2:20 in the video below). Moments later, an outer view showed a cloud of debris.

The live feed switched to a pre-rendered ascent simulation while we waited for news on the crew. Russian space agency Roscosmos confirmed several minutes later that Hague and Ovchinin had been forced to abort the launch and escape the failing booster in the Soyuz capsule. Because of the altitude and speed, the crew had to enter what’s known as a ballistic reentry, which is a much steeper angle than a normal reentry. Soyuz crews usually pull about 4Gs during reentry (four times the force of gravity), but a ballistic trajectory can more than double that. Hague and Ovchinin only reached a bit over 6Gs, though.

A few hours later, Roscosmos released a photo of Hague and Ovchinin safe and sound at a Kazakhstan airport where they were getting a medical checkup after the ordeal. Roscosmos also announced it is forming a commission to investigate the cause of the booster failure. NASA too is conducting an investigation of its own.

So, everyone may be fine after today’s events, but this latest Soyuz incident could have long-lasting repercussions. There was already concern about Soyuz reliability after a drill hole was detected aboard a Soyuz docked at the ISS several weeks ago, and now the MS-10 has failed to make orbit. It’s likely that Russia will pause Soyuz rockets as it looks into the latest incident, and that means no new crew can reach the ISS. Both SpaceX and Boeing are working toward manned ISS launches, but they aren’t expected to get NASA approval until the summer of 2019 at the earliest.

Now read: Programming Error May Have Caused Failed Russian Rocket Launch, NASA secures up to five more seats on Russian Soyuz missions, and Boeing and SpaceX Might Not Be Ready for Manned Flights in 2019