An American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut have been reunited with their families following an emergency return to Earth just minutes after the launch of their mission bound for the International Space Station.
Rescuers said NASA’s Nick Hague and Russian Alexei Ovchinin were in good condition after their emergency landing, which came shortly after they lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Thursday.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and NASA said the three-stage Soyuz booster suffered an emergency shutdown of its second stage.
“At that point, per the standard procedure, an abort was initiated,” International Space Station operations integration manager Kenny Todd said.
Officials said Colonel Hague and Mr Ovchinin experienced 6 to 7 times Earth’s gravity, followed by a brief moment of weightlessness, as they separated from the booster before falling to Earth.
“My heart was beating hard,” astronaut Reid Weisman said of the moment he heard the booster had malfunctioned.
On the ground, spectators looked on in horror as the emergency unfolded, thoughts of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle catastrophe in every mind’s eye. But this time emergency systems worked flawlessly.
The first rescuers reached the site within minutes and relayed the news that the crewmen were unharmed.
“Thank God, the crew is alive,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said, once it became clear that the crew had landed safely.
It was the latest in a string of recent failures for the Russian space program, which also takes American astronauts to the ISS.
Russian officials said they are investigating the incident, adding that all manned space flight missions will be suspended until investigators figure out what went wrong.
The astronauts were to have docked at the space station six hours after the launch, but the unspecified failure shut down the mission almost before it began.
It was to have been Colonel Hague’s first trip into space. Before the mission, he told Voice of America that he was excited and ready, but also nervous.
“Sitting on top of a rocket for the first time and being shot into space, you know, how can you not be nervous?” he said.
Mr Ovchinin is a space veteran, having spent six months on the International Space Station in 2016.