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A rocket malfunction that forces astronauts to evacuate after its launched may sound like a plot straight out of a Hollywood movie. However, that is precisely what happened to Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and American astronaut Nick Hague on October 11, 2018. Fortunately, the “movie” had a happy ending with both scientists returning to Earth safely.
The incident occurred shortly after the Soyuz rocket and its Soyuz MS-10 space capsule carrying the astronauts launched off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan at 4:40 AM EDT. The two scientists were on their way to join Alexander Gerst, Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, and Sergey Valerievich for a six-month stint at the International Space Station (ISS).
The takeoff went smoothly, but just 119 seconds later, officials from Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, informed NASA that the booster had failed to separate from the capsule. Hence, instead of heading to the ISS, the astronauts were ordered to evacuate by detaching the capsule and returning to Earth in what is known as a ballistic descent mode. The sharp drop, which is arrested by a parachute, is similar to free-falling from the skies and subjects astronauts to high levels of g-force.
"If you're ballistic, you're just falling. When the air gets thick, it's sort of like hitting water, and you get squished up to 8G or more," retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield told Business Insider. "It's a safe but much more rugged way to enter."
Fortunately, Hague and Ovchinin had been well-trained for such emergencies and appeared to be in excellent condition when they crash-landed about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, just 34 minutes after they aborted the mission. Upon arrival, Baikonur Cosmodrome's rescue team whisked them off to the hospital to ensure they had not sustained any injuries during their rough journey back to Earth.
It will take a few weeks for experts to determine what caused the malfunction of the usually reliable Soyuz rocket. Meanwhile, the plans for Gerst, Auñón-Chancellor, and Prokopyev, who were supposed to return home on December 13, remain uncertain. That’s because since NASA’s final shuttle mission in 2011, the Russian-built Soyuz has been the only way to transport astronauts back and forth from the ISS. Hence, if the spacecraft is grounded, Hague and Ovchinin, as well as cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Anne McClain, and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, who were scheduled to leave for the ISS on December 20, will be unable to get there.
The good news is that Gerst, Auñón-Chancellor, and Prokopyev will not be stranded in space forever. NASA officials say that if things are not resolved by January 4, 2019, the three ISS astronauts will leave the space laboratory unmanned and return to Earth aboard the emergency Soyuz spacecraft stationed there.
Surprisingly, the harrowing incident has not deterred Hague’s and Ovchinin’s desire to go to space. Hague, who was on his inaugural mission to the space station later joked, “I imagined that my first trip to outer space was going to be a memorable one. I didn’t expect it to be quite this memorable.”
Resources: Space.com, NASA.gov, astronomy.com, BusinessInsider.com. Techchrunch.com