By Shamil Zhumatov
BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan (Reuters) – A two-man U.S.-Russian crew of a Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station was safe following a dramatic emergency landing on Thursday shortly after liftoff in Kazakhstan when their rocket failed in mid-air.
U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin landed safely and rescue crews who raced to locate them on the Kazakh steppe quickly linked up with them, according to the U.S. space agency NASA and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos.
The emergency occurred as the first and second stages of a booster rocket separated shortly after launch from Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur.
The Soyuz capsule carrying the two men separated from the malfunctioning rocket and made what NASA called a steep ballistic descent to Earth with parachutes helping to slow its speed. A cloud of sand billowed up as the capsule came down on the desert steppe.
The capsule took 34 minutes to reach the ground after it separated from the faulty rocket, NASA said.
Rescue crews then raced to the scene to retrieve them, including paratroopers parachuting to their landing spot, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, NASA said.
Footage from inside the Soyuz capsule showed the two men being shaken around at the moment the failure occurred, with their arms and legs flailing. Ovchinin, the Russian cosmonaut, can be heard saying, “That was a quick flight.”
Photographs later released by Roscosmos after the rescue showed the two astronauts smiling and relaxing on sofas at a town near their landing site as they underwent medical tests.
Moscow immediately suspended all manned space launches, the RIA news agency reported, while Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said he ordered a state commission to be set up to investigate what had gone wrong. Russia’s Investigative Committee said it had opened a criminal investigation into the matter.
NASA officials now must decide how or whether to maintain a U.S. presence on the $100 billion orbital research laboratory as Roscosmos investigates the cause of the rocket’s malfunction.
“We have a lot of things planned through the rest of the fall and the winter, and that’s all just being reassessed right now,” Sam Scimemi, NASA’s director for International Space Station, told Reuters. “We have resources well into next year for this crew, so there’s no concern about resources on board.”
Interfax quoted a source as saying the crash meant the three people now aboard the space station – a German, a Russian and an American – would be stuck there at least until January. Unmanned launches of Soyuz rockets might also be suspended, Interfax said.
Russian rockets have been the only means of bringing crew members to the International Space Station since the United States retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011, although NASA has announced plans for a test flight carrying two astronauts on a SpaceX commercial rocket next April.
Thursday’s accident was the first serious launch problem experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before an explosion on the launchpad.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator who was in Kazakhstan to witness Thursday’s launch, said in a statement that the failure had been caused by an anomaly with the rocket’s booster.
“A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted,” Bridenstine said, saying the safety of the crew was the utmost priority for NASA.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the most important thing was that the two men were alive.
“Rescue services have been working since the first second of the accident,” Rogozin wrote on Twitter. “The emergency rescue systems of the MS-Soyuz spacecraft worked smoothly. The crew has been saved.”
A Russian space industry source was cited by the Interfax news agency as saying that there was enough food onboard the space station to last until April of next year.
The next re-supply run was meant to take place on Oct. 31, the source was quoted as saying, but that was now in doubt since the Progress supply ship was propelled by the same kind of rocket used in Thursday’s incident.
Questions are now likely to be asked about Russia’s space program. In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule already docked to the ISS that caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched. Rogozin has said it could have been sabotage.
And in November of last year, Roscosmos lost contact with a newly launched weather satellite – the Meteor-M – after it blasted off from Russia’s new Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far East.
Rogozin said at the time that the problem with the launch of the 2.6 billion-rouble ($39.02 million) satellite had been due to an embarrassing programming error.
Hague and Ovchinin would have joined the station’s current crew, which includes American astronaut Serena Aunon-Chancellor.
“What we usually do is one group comes up and another group comes down just as part of our regular crew rotation,” NASA spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton said.
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(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Kazakhstan and by Christian Lowe, Tom Balmforth, Polina Nikolskaya, Polina Ivanova, Polina Devitt in Moscow; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Orlando, Florida; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Will Dunham)