Space crew survives plunge to Earth after Russian rocket fails

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The space agencies said the astronauts were in good condition after their capsule landed about 20 kilometres east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.

Video footage from the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome shows a large plume of smoke coming from the rocket at the moment it failed and footage from inside the capsule shows the two astronauts being violently shaken about.

The launch lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40 a.m. ET, but just six minutes after launch, Roscosmos reported that there was an issue with the booster, as reported by Loren Grush at The Verge.

For years, since NASA's final shuttle mission launched in 2011, the US has relied on Russian rockets to send astronauts to the International Space Station, which is largely funded by America taxpayer dollars.

It was the latest in a recent series of failures for the Russian space program, which is also used by the U.S.to carry its astronauts to the station.

"Thank God, the crew is alive", Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, told reporters when it became clear the crew had landed safely.

It was to be the first space mission for Hague, who joined NASA's astronaut corps in 2013.

Popular Mechanics reports that Thursday's launch is the fourth time that a ballistic re-entry has occurred in the Soyuz program.

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Had the launch gone smoothly, Ovchinin and Hague would have reached the space station later today. NASA and Roscosmos will now need to make an unprecedented decision which could lead to abandoning the International Space Station; the first time it would be left unmanned since the Expedition 1 mission arrived in November 2000. The two crew members, astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, made it back to the surface safe and sound.

A rescue mission was launched immediately, Nasa and the Russian Roscosmos space agency said. Such a landing is created to decelerate rapidly to bring the astronauts back to the ground, meaning it takes a steep angle of descent and can put the astronauts under extreme gravitational forces, up to eight times normal gravity, as Joe Pappalardo at Popular Mechanics reports.

The descent profile for a ballistic descent is significantly steeper than the trajectory taken by astronauts returning from the space station under normal conditions. The ascent proceeded normally until the separation of one of the rocket's booster stages, by which point the crew had already experienced microgravity.

Interfax quoted a source as saying the crash meant the three people now aboard the space station - a German, a Russian and an American - would be stuck there at least until January.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator who was in Kazakhstan to witness Thursday's launch, said in a statement that the failure had been caused by an anomaly with the rocket's booster. "But we have confidence that our Russian colleagues will figure out what's going on and we'll hopefully see Nick and Alexei in orbit at the space station soon", said Kenny Todd, NASA's International Space Station operations integration manager.

Staff monitoring the launch said the crew-NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin-returned to earth after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. "The ISS crew members now in-orbit have been notified of the launch contingency". Then, a rocket malfunctioned shortly before launch, and the crew vehicle was ejected to safety.

The existing station crew is supposed to get its ride back home in a Soyuz capsule that is docked to the station.

Questions are now likely to be asked about Russia's space programme. The hole cause a small oxygen leak while hooked up to the ISS.

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