This morning, astronauts on a joint Russian-American launch to the International Space Station (ISS) had to make an emergency landing in Kazakhstan minutes after liftoff after a failure in the rocket booster engine, according to the Associated Press. The two astronauts aboard the Soyuz Russian rocket, Nick Hague from NASA and Alexei Ovchinin from Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, are both reported to be in “good condition.”
The rocket booster is essentially an engine that sets off intense, continuous explosions to propel a rocket through the first part of its launch—a few minutes after the launch. It’s not known what exactly caused this booster failure, but all crewed missions are indefinitely on hold pending investigations. Russia claims it will share all relevant information about the cause of the malfunction with the United States.
It’s not clear if or when this morning’s launch will be rescheduled to a different date, or if any future launches will be rescheduled or reconsidered after this morning’s failed launch. NASA did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment. We will update this article if we hear back.
The failed launch also raises questions about the safety of the people currently in orbit in the ISS. As pointed out by The Verge, the astronauts currently stationed in the ISS launched there via a Soyuz rocket—the same rocket that malfunctioned in this morning’s launch. Earlier this year, there was another Soyuz rocket failure after a hole opened up in one of the rocket’s air capsules, allowing life-saving, pressurized air to leak out of the rocket.
All US federal funding to the ISS is scheduled to come to an end in 2025, as we’ve known since 2014. After federal funding ends, countries like the US hope to lease space on the ISS to private businesses who can use the satellite for marketing, research, and other commercial purposes.
The US, Russia, and a myriad of countries have all been investing heavily in their aerospace sector, who see the arena as a way to garner soft power for their administrations. Politicians such as Newt Gingrich, who is an advisor to the US National Space Council advisory board, have explicitly described ventures to outer space as a “space race.”
Even the ISS, a space of international cooperation in space, is used as a way of gathering research about the way that human bodies respond to the vacuum of space. Essentially, hope is that this research can eventually be used to station humans in space, or on a station on the moon or Mars, for long periods of time. However, as today’s launch failures show, there is a potential human cost to a country’s drive for dominance in space.