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BAIKONUR: A booster rocket failed less than two minutes after launching an American and a Russian towards the International Space Station on Thursday, forcing their emergency but safe landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

It was the latest in a recent series of failures for the troubled Russian space programme, which is used by the US to carry its astronauts to the station.

Nasa astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin were subjected to heavy gravitational forces as their capsule automatically jettisoned from the Soyuz booster rocket and fell back to Earth at a sharper-than-normal angle and landed about 20 kilometres east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.

“Thank God the crew is alive,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, when it became clear that they had landed safely. He added that the president is receiving regular updates about the situation.

Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who watched the launch at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome along with his Russian counterpart, tweeted that Hague and Ovchinin are in good condition. He added that a “thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.” Hague, 43, and Ovchinin, 47, lifted off as scheduled at 2:40pm; 4:40am on Thursday from Baikonur. The astronauts were to dock at the International Space Station six hours after the launch and join an American, a Russian and a German currently aboard the station.

But the three-stage Soyuz booster suffered an unspecified failure of its second stage about two minutes after launching. Search and rescue teams were immediately scrambled to recover the crew, and paratroopers were dropped from a plane to reach the site quickly.

While the Russian space programme has been dogged by a string of launch failures and other incidents in recent years, Thursday’s mishap marked the programme’s first manned launch failure since Sept 1983, when a Soyuz exploded on the launch pad.

It was to be the first space mission for Hague, who joined Nasa’s astronaut corps in 2013. Ovchinin spent six months on the orbiting outpost in 2016.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2018