The launch is the first leg in a lengthy and complex journey. The crew will coast for six hours and circle Earth four times before the capsule nears the ISS and docks. Three other astronauts, already on board the station, will greet them.
One of them, Alexander Gerst of Germany, captured the view of the Soyuz launch from the station:
While the crew still has a ways to go, a successful launch is a relief after the failed attempt in October. The capsule, carrying one American and one Russian, successfully lifted off from the cosmodrome and began its ascent toward the edge of space. But a few minutes into the flight, emergency lights lit up and alarms began to blare inside the capsule. The capsule fired its engines and shoved itself away from the rocket.
NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said communication was lost briefly between Russian mission control and the capsule during the emergency landing. “Might have been as many as five minutes, but it seemed like it was forever—it seemed like it just kept going on and on,” Bridenstine said. It was long enough for him to wonder what he would have to say if the flight ended in tragedy.
The capsule eventually parachuted to the ground. The crew was shaken—the unexpected descent subjected them to a crush of seven times the force of gravity—but unharmed. They returned home.
The incident marked the first launch failure of a crewed Soyuz mission in 35 years. It also presented an unsettling possibility for the ISS. The three people on board at the time—Gerst, Serena Auñón-Chancellor of the U.S., and Sergey Prokopyev of Russia—were scheduled to return to Earth in early December. The members of the aborted launch, Nick Hague of the U.S. and Alexey Ovchinin of Russia, were supposed to be on board to see them off. If the three space travelers returned home before another crew went up, the ISS would be unoccupied for the first time in 18 years. With Monday’s launch, that scenario has been avoided; instead, the two crews will share the ISS for a couple of weeks before Gerst, Auñón-Chancellor, and Prokopyev head home.
Officials at Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, eventually traced the launch failure to the Soyuz’s boosters, which help propel the capsule into orbit before falling away one by one. Officials said a faulty sensor on one of the boosters prevented the hardware from cleanly separating. Instead, the booster struck the main rocket, and the impact produced enough of a jolt to trigger the Soyuz system’s automatic abort sequence.
Roscosmos said the sensor glitch originated during manufacturing, and vowed to inspect all versions of its Soyuz system. Before Monday’s flight, the agency conducted four successful uncrewed fights with various configurations of the Soyuz system, including the same one that malfunctioned in October. Bridenstine and other NASA officials have repeatedly said they believe the Soyuz system is safe. “It really is one of the most resilient and capable human launch capabilities that has ever existed,” Bridenstine said in October.