A routine trip to send new crew members to the space station became one of the most dramatic moments in the recent history of Russia’s space program.
Two astronauts, Aleksey N. Ovchinin, a Russian, and Nick Hague, an American, were blasting off from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They were traveling in a variant of Soyuz, Russia’s workhorse capsule that has been lofting humans to space since 1967. After the space shuttle retired in 2011, and until SpaceX launched its crewed spacecraft this year, the Soyuz had become astronauts’ only ride to the I.S.S.
Suddenly, one of the capsule’s old-school, analog lights lit up red, indicating the rocket had failed. Video from inside the capsule showed the moment when the spacecraft jolted in distress.
The emergency escape system separated the ship from the exploding rocket about 31 miles above Earth’s surface. Mr. Ovchinin then flew manually for a few moments to align the capsule and plunged back down, experiencing seven times the normal pull of gravity.
“It was like having a cement block on your chest weighing seven times your weight,” he said.
Both he and Mr. Hague were unharmed and later got back on the bronco that had bucked them off, making the trip to the space station in 2019. The incident was the only time the Soyuz’s emergency escape system has been used during dozens of flight to the station.
While it was the most serious close call for the Russians in the 20 years of the space station’s operation, it also showed the reliability of their approach, which involves flying rockets and capsules that are modernized only incrementally. SpaceX’s 21st-century ride to orbit has impressed astronauts with its capabilities, but Soyuz will continue carrying crews with the engineering and ingenuity that has kept it useful for more than five decades.