The Russian rocket Soyuz launching astronauts at the International Space Station will be grounded for months after two crew members were forced to make an emergency landing in Kazakhstan.
The American Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin from Russia were on board the Soyuz rocket when they developed a propulsion problem almost two minutes after takeoff and were forced to make an emergency landing in their capsule. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has announced an immediate investigation into the incident.
Video footage broadcast live from the Soyuz capsule showed that the astronauts were agitated while firing free from the rocket. The emergency interruption, which subjected them to gravity almost seven times stronger than that of the Earth, made them plunge into the ground in what is known as "ballistic landing". The capsule fell heavily, its descent slowed down by parachutes, about 300 miles downstream near the town of Jezkazgan.
The rocket took off under a blue sky from the Baikonur cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan and seemed to work perfectly up to 119 seconds in flight. Hague was on her first flight into space, Ovchinin was at her second.
The rocket was traveling at over 1,100 miles at the time when the break mechanism fired. A second before, four strap-on boosters surrounding the Soyuz's central power unit were ejected as planned.
Search and rescue teams are kept on standby in Baikonur in the event of such flight failures. A team sent by helicopter found the two men safe and sound and transported them to the local airport where they were taken back to Baikonur on a NASA plane for medical checks.
The accident, the most serious in the history of the International Space Station, threw a shadow over an otherwise enviable security record for the Soyuz rocket.
The only crew of the previous time had to stop the flight at mid-flight in 1975 when the second and third phases of a Soyuz rocket failed to separate, triggering the automatic abortment system.
The investigation, cited by the Investigative Committee of Russia as a criminal investigation, arrives a few weeks after Roscosmos was forced to launch an investigation into how a hole was drilled into the wall of the capsule Soyuz which is now anchored at the space station.
Thomas Reiter, a space station veteran and advisor to the Director General at the European Space Agency, said that Soyuz would be rooted until the investigation had identified the cause of the failure and resolved the problem. "How long it will take to fly again is hard to predict," he said. But he added that recent surveys of satellite launch failures required an average of two months to resolve.
"A major process of replanning will now be launched," said Reiter. While the three crew members have plenty of water and oxygen, the grounding of the Russian rocket will inevitably lead to a profound revision of the astronauts' priorities. Most of their time is currently spent on scientific experiments, but now it may be necessary to move towards the maintenance of the space station. "They will have to examine the priorities of maintenance activities," added Reiter.
Supplies can still be sent to the space station on board a SpaceX capsule. If an emergency situation develops on the station, the crew can return to the Soyuz capsule moored there. "They still have the life raft," said Reiter.
"For all of us the most important aspect is that the crew has landed safely and everything is good.This is a great relief for all of us and the crew up there," he said Reiter.
Martin Barstow, professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester and former president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said that Soyuz's failure was a shock because of his otherwise impressive security record. "They will certainly have to review what went wrong before they think about throwing someone again, depending on how serious the problem is, but it may take months before they are ready to fly again." There is much work to do.  "The downside is that currently there is an unknown anomaly that will have to investigate and understand. And until they did and they determined why it went wrong – it was a component, for example – they can not fly. They will have to examine all the affected systems and revalidate them. They have to make sure it does not happen again. "