Technology & Science

'No time to be nervous': Cosmonaut, astronaut recount spacecraft mishap

A Russian cosmonaut and a NASA astronaut describe what they experienced during their close call last week — the failed launch and emergency landing of their Soyuz spacecraft.

Next Soyuz rocket launch could happen as soon as Oct. 24, but will be unmanned

U.S. astronaut Nick Hague, right, and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, crew members of the mission to the International Space Station, wave before boarding prior to the failed launch of a Soyuz-FG rocket carrying the capsule at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 11. (Yuri Kochetkov, Pool Photo via Associated Press)

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin on Tuesday shrugged off his emergency landing last week, saying there had been no time to worry as his capsule plunged back to Earth.

Ovchinin and American astronaut Nick Hague had to abort their mission on Oct. 11 after the Soyuz rocket that was supposed to carry them to the International Space Station failed.

Their space capsule violently ripped from the damaged rocket shortly after liftoff, and then with lights flashing and alarms sounding, plunged steeply back to Earth with punishing force.

In an interview with Rossiya-24 television, Ovchinin described the huge G-forces the crew experienced.

"Imagine if a reinforced concrete block seven times your weight was placed on your chest," he said.

However, Ovchinin insisted he had experienced greater G-forces during training exercises. "There was actually no time to be nervous. We had to work. We had to carry out various actions that have to be done by the crew to prepare for an emergency landing."

'That was a quick flight'

Video from inside the capsule showed the two men being shaken around at the moment the Soyuz failure occurred, with their arms and legs flailing. Ovchinin could be heard saying: "That was a quick flight."

The Soyuz-FG rocket booster topped with a Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying a new crew to the ISS blasts off at the cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 11. The Russian booster rocket failed, forcing the spacecraft to make an emergency landing. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Hague said he and Ovchinin, his commander, were flung from side to side and shoved back hard into their seats as the drama unfolded 50 kilometres above Kazakhstan last Thursday. One of the four strap-on boosters failed to separate properly two minutes into the flight to the International Space Station and apparently struck the core rocket stage, resulting instantaneously in a rare launch abort.

It was the first aborted launch for the Russians in 35 years and only the third in history. Like each one before, the rocket's safety system kept the crew alive.

Hague — the first American to endure an experience such as this — communicated in Russian throughout the more than half-hour ordeal.

"All of my instincts and reflexes inside the capsule are to speak Russian," said Hague, who had two years of training in Russia.

"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," Hague told The Associated Press from Houston.

A few moments of weightlessness

The astronauts experienced a few moments of weightlessness after their Soyuz capsule catapulted away from the rocket. Hague, making his first launch, saw the curvature of Earth and the blackness of space.

'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,' Hague said Tuesday about the failed launch. (NASA TV via Associated Press)

Between the failure and the touchdown, Hague looked out the window to ensure the capsule's systems were operating properly and check their landing. They braced for the extreme force — seven times the force of gravity — of the unusually steep descent and the shock of the parachutes popping open.

They landed on the smooth, flat terrain of Kazakhstan.

"You can imagine the scene," Hague said. "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."

Neither man was injured.

Hague, 43, said he has dealt with in-flight emergencies during his Air Force career, but nothing on this scale.

"Any time you're launching yourself into space and your booster has a problem when you're going 1,800 metres per second, things are pretty dynamic and they happen very fast."

He's grateful the emergency system worked despite the fact it hadn't been called into action for decades.

His emotions bubbled up once he was reunited with his wife, their two young sons and his parents, back at the launch site. His youngest wanted to know when he was going back to space.

Hague said he has no clue as to when he'll get a second shot, but will be ready as soon as he gets the go-ahead.

A Russian accident investigation is continuing, with all crew launches to the space station on hold. The space station, meanwhile, is managing for now with a crew of three.

"What can you do? Sometimes you don't get a vote," Hague said. "You just try to celebrate the little gifts that you get, like walking the boys to school this morning."

The first launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket into orbit since a failed launch last week is planned for Oct. 24 to 26 and will carry a military satellite into space, Interfax news agency cited a source in the space industry as saying on Wednesday.

With files from The Associated Press


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