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U.S. And Russian Astronauts Safe Following Rocket Malfunction After Launch


Thank God the crew is alive. Those were the words from a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin after a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying two astronauts to the International Space Station failed during its ascent today. That liftoff had proceeded smoothly for about two minutes. Then came some real-life drama.


ALEKSEY OVCHININ: (Speaking Russian).


OVCHININ: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...The emergency booster? Two minutes, 45 seconds...

OVCHININ: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...The emergency - the failure of the booster.

OVCHININ: (Speaking Russian).

CHANG: The crew, American Nick Hague and Russian Aleksey Ovchinin, are safe after an emergency landing in Kazakhstan. Three other astronauts are currently on board the space station, and now their return home might be delayed. For more on all of this, we are joined by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He served as commander of the International Space Station in 2013 and flew up there and back in a Russian Soyuz capsule. Welcome.

CHRIS HADFIELD: Thank you. Nice to be talking with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So this was going to be American Nick Hague's first time into space, the second for Aleksey Ovchinin. What kind of training would they have had to handle a situation like this?

HADFIELD: Both of them have been training for decades, Aleksey as a cosmonaut for quite a while, as you say, with spaceflight experience. Nick prior to being an astronaut was a test pilot in the U.S. Air Force. So that's an extremely risky, complex job. So they've been getting ready for this for many, many years. And then specifically for this launch, they've working together for a couple of years. We wring out every last thing that could possibly go wrong. And the way the crew behaved - they were so crisp and professional, right on top of their game. You would never know that the vehicle was behaving so badly if you listened to how Aleksey was dealing with things, bringing them both safely back to Earth.

CHANG: When would be the next chance you could go on a mission like this again? I mean, I can't imagine the psychological blow.

HADFIELD: Yeah, you're right. You know, the crew at first will be super focused and professional and doing their job. But afterwards, they're just going to be kind of mad 'cause (laughter) they didn't get to go...

CHANG: Absolutely.

HADFIELD: ...To space today, you know, kind of like, gosh, all that preparation.

CHANG: All that buildup.

HADFIELD: But neither of them got hurt. And they're back in the game, and they'll have a chance to fly again.

CHANG: Very true.

HADFIELD: But I don't know who will fly next. It's way too soon to tell. It's going to be a long time to figure out what went wrong, and then we'll have to start thinking about who should fly next, what skill set should we need, when is that going to be, all of the repercussions that come from an event like today.

CHANG: Tell me what it will take - what kind of conversations are going to have to happen to figure out how to move forward.

HADFIELD: The first thing we need to do is find out what went wrong. What failed in this rocket? There's a lot of information people will be able to sift through - video of it but also the sensors on board. Then we need to see how can we fix it. Was it a design problem, a manufacturing problem? Who knows. And then once you know that you can fix it, then you can set a timeline. If that's three months from now, then no big deal. But if it's going to take a year or two years, then we need other plans. Boeing is building a rocket that can take people to the space station or a spaceship. SpaceX is building a ship that can take people to the space station. Maybe they could be accelerated. Maybe they could fly before the Russians are going to be ready to fly again. And when do we bring the crew back from the space station? All of those questions need to be analyzed.

CHANG: The way I understand it, they were expecting to return home. And now that return could be delayed, correct?

HADFIELD: They flew up in a different Soyuz. That's docked to the space station. It's sort of like a lifeboat or their ride home. It's there. They can come home anytime they want.


HADFIELD: But if they undock and come home, then they are basically abandoning ship. The space station would be empty. And it's a big enough and complicated enough ship that after a little while, things start to go wrong and there'd be nobody there to fix them. So it really causes a lot of risk for the space station to leave it unmanned. So people will be looking really hard at all of the limits and have to decide what the right tradeoffs are. We don't know the answers yet, but it's going to be a really complicated decision-making process coming up.

CHANG: Chris Hadfield was the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station. Thank you very much for joining us today.

HADFIELD: Nice to talk with you, Ailsa. Thank you.

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