Last Thursday, a Russian rocket was aborted moments after liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying one Russian cosmonaut and one American astronaut. That astronaut, Air Force Colonel Nick Hague, is no stranger to dangerous situations in the sky. Through combat deployments and his tenure as an Air Force test pilot, Hague has found himself in a hurry to get back to the ground before… but never in quite so rapid, or dramatic, a fashion.
Hague has been an astronaut since 2013, but Thursday was going to be his first ever ascent into orbit. As he and the flight’s commander, cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, took off, they braced themselves for what they anticipated to be one hell of a six-hour ride all the way to the International Space Station some 250 miles above their heads. Instead, just two minutes after the rocket left the launchpad, the two-man crew began shaking violently.
You can see footage from inside the capsule at that moment in this video:
The rocket had failed to separate from its first stage booster, placing both men in an immediate life or death situation. Ovchinin made the split-second decision to abort the launch — a decision that saved both men’s lives. For the first time in 35 years, the Soyuz capsule deployed its emergency abort system, catapulting the men into what’s called a “ballistic descent.” A “ballistic” trajectory, of course, isn’t normally the sort one might prefer for a manned spacecraft, with both men experiencing a brief stint of weightlessness just before being hit with upwards of 7 Gs — far more than astronauts even experience during launch, as they careened back toward Kazakhstan.
Despite the rough ride, the Soviet era capsule performed admirably, safely touching down without either crew-member suffering any real injuries. Search and rescue teams deployed immediately upon the rocket’s abort, located the capsule and returned both men to the Cosmodrome for medical evaluations, and to be reunited with their concerned families.
Now, with concerns looming about how the International Space Station will continue to function without a critical crew rotation, as well as the state of Russia’s rocket program (relied upon by both nations to reach orbit), some tough decisions lie ahead. Nonetheless, Hague himself seems undeterred — eager for another chance at getting into space and grateful to have survived such a close call.
Watch Air Force Colonel and astronaut Nick Hague answer questions about his dramatic descent and what it’s like to survive a failed rocket launch below: