It is not clear how long the Soyuz vehicle will be grounded. On Thursday in Kazakhstan, at 4:40am EDT, a Soyuz rocket took off carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin toward the International Space Station. The ascent proceeded normally until the separation of one of the rocket's booster stages, by which point the crew had already experienced microgravity. Because the Soyuz spacecraft did not reach orbit at the point of this booster failure, the crew was forced to make a rapid ballistic descent likely under high g-forces. After about 20 minutes of uncertainty, Russian officials confirmed the crew were ok and had landed about 20km east of Dzhezkazgan, a city in central Kazakhstan. As rescue crews arrived, Hague and Ovchinin were reported in "good condition" and found out of the capsule. Little additional information has been provided. Roscosmos, the Russian firm that operates the nation's space agency and is responsible for Soyuz launches, will not hold any news conferences today. The head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, said a state commission has already been established to study the accident. This failure raises serious questions about the future of the International Space Station, as, since the space shuttle's retirement in 2011, the Soyuz spacecraft and rocket were the only means by which crews have been able to reach it. With Thursday's failed launch, just three people remain on the station: American astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, German ISS Commander Alexander Gerst, and Russian Sergey Prokopyev. It is not clear how long the Soyuz vehicle will be grounded or how long the current crew can remain in orbit. NASA's own transportation system, the commercial crew vehicles under development by SpaceX and Boeing, have yet to take uncrewed test flights to the station, and those are unlikely to occur before early 2019. The first crewed flights would not take place until several months after that, unless the space agency is willing to take additional risks with those missions. China has a human space flight capability, but it has no crew missions planned before 2020, and NASA is barred by Congress from working with the Chinese Space Agency. Several recent problems with the Soyuz launch system will complicate the investigation. In December 2016, a Soyuz-U rocket carrying an uncrewed Progress spacecraft laden with 2.6 tons of food, fuel, and other supplies lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Following a normal launch, first-, and second-stage firings, things started to go wrong for Progress MS-04 at about six minutes into the flight, also with a booster issue. The spacecraft was lost. The rocket that launched Thursday was a slightly more modern Soyuz-FG booster. Moreover, there was a problem with the last Soyuz spacecraft, which launched in June, when a small leak was found in the vehicle's orbital module in space in August. Russian officials have been coy about what caused the problem, even intimating that a NASA astronaut may have drilled the hole while in space. An investigation is ongoing, but what most likely happened is that a worker accidentally damaged the spacecraft at some point during the manufacturing or integration process. This could have happened during the manufacturing phase at RSC Energia's facilities in Samara, Russia or at the processing and integration facilities in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, from where the spacecraft was launched. In the wake of this most recent mishap, NASA released a statement just last week saying it had full confidence in the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft that was launching Thursday morning. NASA's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, was actually in Kazakhstan for the launch. This story will be updated with additional information when it is available.
A fault in a Soyuz rocket booster has resulted in an aborted crew mission to the International Space Station, but fortunately no loss of life. The astronauts in the capsule, Nick Hague (U.S.) and Alexey Ovchinin (Russia) successfully detached upon recognizing the fault and made a safe, if bumpy, landing nearly 250 miles east of the launch site in Kazakhstan. This high-profile failure could bolster demand for U.S.-built crewed spacecraft. The launch proceeded normally for the first minute and a half, but at that point, when the first and second stages were meant to detach, there was an unspecified fault, possibly a failure of the first stage and its fuel tanks to detach. The astronauts recognized this issue and immediately initiated the emergency escape system. Hague and Ovchinin in the capsule before the fault occurred. The Soyuz capsule detached from the rocket and began a ballistic descent (read: falling), arrested by a parachute before landing approximately 34 minutes after the fault. Right now thats about as much detail on the actual event as has been released by Roscosmos and NASA. Press conferences have been mainly about being thankful that the crew is okay, assuring people that theyll get to the bottom of this and kicking the can down the road on everything else. Although it will likely take weeks before we know exactly what happened, the repercussions for this failure are immediate. The crew on the ISS will not be reinforced, and as there are only 3 up there right now with a single Soyuz capsule with which to return to Earth, theres a chance theyll have to leave the ISS empty for a short time. The current crew was scheduled to return in December, but NASA has said that the Soyuz is safe to take until January 4, so theres a bit of leeway. Thats not to say they can necessarily put together another launch before then, but if the residents there need to stay a bit longer to safely park the station, as it were, they have a bit of extra time to do so. The Soyuz booster and capsule have been an extremely reliable system for shuttling crew to and from the ISS, and no Soyuz fault has ever led to loss of life, although there have been a few issues recently with DOA satellites and of course the recent hole found in one just in August. This was perhaps the closest a Soyuz has come to a life-threatening failure, and as such any Soyuz-based launches will be grounded until further notice. To be clear, this was a failure with the Soyuz-FG rocket, which is slated for replacement, not with the capsule or newer rocket of the same name. SpaceX and Boeing have been competing to create and certify their own crew capsules, which were scheduled for testing some time next year — but while the Soyuz issues may nominally increase the demand for these U.S.-built alternatives, the testing process cant be rushed. That said, grounding the Soyuz (if only for crewed flights) and conducting a full-scale fault investigation is no small matter, and if were not flying astronauts up to the ISS in one of them, were not doing it at all. So there is at least an incentive to perform testing of the new crew capsules in a timely manner and keep to as short a timeframe as is reasonable. You can watch the launch as it played out here: