Nick Hague is back in the United States following last week’s aborted launch of a Soyuz-FG rocket. The NASA astronaut has now described the incident to the Associated Press, explaining what happened after the Russian-built capsule flew away from the failing rocket at speeds reaching 6480km/h.
At first, the 11 October 2018 launch from the Baikonur spaceport in southern Kazakhstan seemed to be going smoothly. Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin were en route to the International Space Station when, about two minutes into the flight, things started to go very wrong.
When they were 50km above the Earth’s surface and at the edge of space, one of the rocket’s four strap-on boosters failed to separate properly. The crew had to abort the launch and switch to ballistic descent.
After a harrowing 30-minute descent, the Soyuz MS-10 module, with the two men on board, landed in the Kazakh steppe.
Preliminary evidence suggests that, instead of falling away from the advancing rocket, the booster struck the core section, triggering the launch-abort sequence.
Hague, 43, is now back in Houston, and he recently spoke to the Associated Press about the ordeal, saying he knew he needed to stay calm despite all hell breaking loose. With lights flashing and alarms blaring, he and Ovchinin were tossed from side to side and pushed back into their seats during the separation failure.
“Any time you’re launching yourself into space and your booster has a problem when you’re going 1800 meters per second, things are pretty dynamic and they happen very fast,” he said.
The Soyuz module then flung away violently from the rocket core. For a brief moment, the crew experienced zero gravity. Hague said he even saw the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth.
But for the US Air Force colonel, who was making his inaugural trip to space, this was as far as he was going to get. With no time to lament, Hague went to work, communicating with the ground controllers in fluent Russian.
“All of my instincts and reflexes inside the capsule are to speak Russian,” Hague told the AP. “We knew that if we wanted to be successful, we needed to stay calm and we needed to execute the procedures in front of us as smoothly and efficiently as we could.”
During the free-fall stage of the descent, Hague kept his wits about him and carefully monitored the situation. Speaking to reporters, Ovchinin said Hague kept his composure during the crisis, reporting the exact coordinates of the upcoming landing.
“My partner Nick acted as a true expert and was completely coolheaded,” Ovchinin told journalists. “I never saw even a hint of fear in his eyes,” adding that Hague responded “immediately to all questions from the Earth... it was obvious that he was in total control of the [emergency] situation,” he said.
Anticipating the release of the parachute, the duo braced themselves for the tremendous forces involved — about seven times the force of gravity. The entire descent took about 30 minutes, and neither the astronaut or the cosmonaut experienced any injuries.
“You can imagine the scene,” said Hague. “We’re kind of hanging upside-down from our straps... and we looked at each other, big grins. He holds out a hand. I shake his hand. And then we start cracking a few jokes between us about how short our flight was.”
This is the first aborted launch for Russia in 35 years, so the emergency system hasn’t been put to the test in decades. Hague said he’s grateful the abort procedure worked as well as it did, and he credits the system for saving his and Ovchinin’s lives.
All crewed launches have been suspended by Russia’s space agency following Thursday’s Soyuz rocket failure. That’s a problem, because much of the world relies on Russian rockets to get both cargo and people into space. Consequently, we’re now facing the very real possibility of having an uncrewed International Space Station — something that hasn’t happened in nearly two decades.
An investigation is currently underway to determine the cause of the launch failure, with a report expected on October 20. Regardless, the Russian space agency has gone on the record saying both Ovchinin and Hague will go to the ISS once things are up and running again.
The ISS is currently being operated by a crew of three. Should the Soyuz launch system be grounded for an extended period, the space station could be totally unoccupied by January 2019, which hasn’t happened since 2001.