Russia opens criminal probe after rocket malfunction forces emergency landing

Moscow suspended manned space flights after a booster on a Soyuz craft failed, forcing an emergency landing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 10:55pm

Russian investigators said they had opened a criminal probe into a failed rocket launch that caused a two-man crew to make an emergency landing soon after blasting off to the International Space Station on Thursday.

“An investigative group has been formed and officials are currently examining the launch site, documents are being seized,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

The probe would try to determine whether safety regulations had been violated during construction, leading to massive damage, the statement said.

American Nick Hague and Russian Alexey Ovchinin landed safely without any injuries after an “anomaly with the booster” prompted the ascent to be aborted, Nasa head Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos tweeted video of the two getting on a plane back from the crash site.

“The emergency rescue system worked, the vessel was able to land in Kazakhstan … the crew are alive,” the space agency said earlier.

Hague and Ovchinin – both former military pilots – were set to join Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, Nasa’s Serena Aunon-Chancellor and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos following a six-hour flight.

“The launch had a problem with the booster a few seconds after the first stage separation and we can confirm now that the crew has started to go into ballistic descent mode,” the voice-over on a Nasa live-stream from mission control in Houston said.

A ballistic descent is when a craft comes back to the ground at a sharper angle than normal, causing higher gravitational forces on the bodies of the astronauts, but they are prepared for this in training, the commentator said.

“We’re tightening our seat belts,” Ovchinin said on the video. “That was a short flight.”

The Kremlin confirmed the men had survived. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists: “Thank God the cosmonauts are alive.”

The head of Nasa Jim Bridenstine was at the launch at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome together with Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, as part of an effort to mend relations between the two space superpowers.

The US has been trying to end Russia’s monopoly on manned flights to the ISS by encouraging private commercial development of launches.

Billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Explorations Technologies and Boeing have contracts to deliver astronauts to the ISS starting next year, which may threaten a key source of funding for Russia’s space programme.

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Roscosmos has earned billions of dollars in fees ferrying astronauts into orbit since Nasa retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011. Rogozin accused Musk last week of selling seats on SpaceX at below cost to undermine Russia’s market share.

Over the past few years the Russian space industry has suffered a series of problems including the loss of a number of satellites and other spacecraft.

In 1975, Oleg Makarov and Vasily Lazarev made a successful emergency landing in Siberia’s Altai Mountains following problems during booster separation.

Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov survived a fire during launch in Kazakhstan in 1983.

Since its debut in the Soviet Union in 1966, the Soyuz has been the most-used launch vehicle in history.

Nasa tweeted that Roscosmos has formed a commission to investigate the latest Soyuz incident.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said he hoped the United States would be understanding about the incident. He was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency that manned space flights would be suspended until an investigation into the cause of the malfunction is finished.

The next launch was expected to be in December, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported, citing an unidentified person.

The ISS crew said it had enough supplies so the incident would not affect its operations, according to Tass new agency. Interfax said it had enough for the current crew to last six months, quoting an unnamed source.

A rare point of cooperation between Moscow and Washington – the station has been orbiting Earth at roughly 28,000km/h since 1998 and will mark its 20th birthday in November.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Washington Post