Two astronauts from the U.S. and Russia were safe Thursday after an emergency landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan following the failure of a Russian rocket carrying them to the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos' Alexei Ovchinin lifted off as scheduled at 2:40 p.m. local time from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but their Soyuz rocket failed about two minutes after the launch.
The rescue capsule then automatically jettisoned from the booster and went into a ballistic descent, landing at a sharper than normal angle and subjecting the crew to heavy gravitational force, NASA and Roscosmos officials said.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who watched the launch at Baikonur along with his Russian counterpart, tweeted that Hague and Ovchinin were in good condition. He added that a "thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted."
The capsule landed about 12 miles east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. The astronauts were flown by helicopter to Dzhezkazgan and will later be taken to Baikonur and on to Star City, Russia's space training center outside Moscow.
The Russian space program has been dogged by a string of launch failures and other incidents in recent years, but Thursday's mishap marked the program's first manned launch failure since September 1983, when a Soyuz exploded on the launch pad. Cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov jettisoned and landed safely near the launch pad after the blast.
"Thank God, the crew is alive," Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters when it became clear that the crew had landed safely. He added that Putin is receiving regular updates about the situation.
It was to be the first space mission for Hague, who joined NASA's astronaut corps in 2013. Ovchinin spent six months on the space station in 2016.
NASA posted pictures of Hague and Ovchinin undergoing a medical check-up at Dzhezkazgan's airport. One of the pictures showed Hague smiling and another had him sitting next to Russian space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin.
The astronauts were to dock at the International Space Station six hours after the launch, but the three-stage Soyuz suffered an unspecified failure of its second stage. Search-and-rescue teams were immediately scrambled to recover the crew, and paratroopers were dropped from a plane to reach the site and help in the rescue effort.
Dzhezkazgan is about 280 miles northeast of Baikonur, and Russian spacecraft returning from the space station normally land in that region.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said all manned launches will be suspended pending an investigation into the cause of the failure. He added that Russia will fully share all relevant information with the U.S.
Earlier this week, Bridenstine emphasized that collaboration with Russia's Roscosmos remains important.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have sunk to post-Cold War lows over the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria and allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential vote, but they have maintained cooperation in space research.
The Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle for ferrying crews to space station following the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet. Russia stands to lose that monopoly in the coming years with the arrival of SpaceX's Dragon v2 and Boeing's Starliner crew capsules.
Russia has continued to rely on Soviet-designed rockets for launching commercial satellites, as well as crews and cargo to the space station.Though those rockets had earned a stellar reputation for their reliability in the past, a string of failed launches in recent years has called into doubt Russia's ability to maintain the same high standards of manufacturing.
Glitches found in Russia's Proton and Soyuz rockets in 2016 were traced to manufacturing flaws at the plant in Voronezh. Roscosmos sent more than 70 rocket engines back to production lines to replace faulty components, a move that resulted in a yearlong break in Proton launches and badly dented Russia's niche in the global market for commercial satellite launches.
In August, the International Space Station crew spotted a hole in a Russian Soyuz capsule docked to the orbiting outpost that caused a brief loss of air pressure before being patched.
Roscosmos’ Rogozin has raised wide concern by saying that the leak was a drill hole that was made intentionally during manufacturing or in orbit. He didn't say if he suspected any of the current crew — an American, a Russian and a German — aboard the station. The current crew's stint in orbit will likely be extended following Thursday's aborted launch.