BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AP) - The problem came two minutes into the flight: The rocket carrying an American and a Russian to the International Space Station failed Thursday, triggering an emergency that sent their capsule into a steep, harrowing fall back to Earth.
The crew landed safely on the steppes of Kazakhstan, but the aborted mission dealt another blow to the troubled Russian space program that currently serves as the only link to deliver astronauts to the orbiting outpost.
NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin had a brief period of weightlessness when the capsule separated from the malfunctioning Soyuz rocket at an altitude of about 31 miles, then endured gravitational forces of 6 to 7 times more than is felt on Earth as they came down at a sharper-than-normal angle.
About a half-hour later, the capsule parachuted onto a barren area about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.
“Thank God the crew is alive,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He added that Putin received regular updates.
New NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who watched the launch at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome along with his Russian counterpart, said Hague and Ovchinin were in good condition. He added that a “thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”
All Russian manned launches will be suspended pending an investigation into the cause of the failure, said Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov.
Hague, 43, and Ovchinin, 47, lifted off as scheduled at 2:40 p.m. (0840 GMT; 4:40 a.m. EDT) from Baikonur. The astronauts were to dock at the space station six hours after the launch and join an American, a Russian and a German on board.
But the three-stage Soyuz booster suffered an unspecified failure of its second stage two minutes after launch. Russian news reports indicated that one of its four first-stage engines might have failed to jettison in sync with others, resulting in the second stage’s shutdown and activating the automatic emergency rescue system.
Search and rescue teams were immediately scrambled to recover the crew, and paratroopers were dropped from a plane to reach the site quickly. Dzhezkazgan is about 450 kilometers (280 miles) northeast of Baikonur, and spacecraft returning from the space station normally land in that region.
The astronauts were flown by helicopter to Dzhezkazgan, where they underwent a medical checkup and then taken by plane to Baikonur for more checks and to see their families. They will spend the night in Baikonur before being flown to Star City, Russia’s space training center outside Moscow.