Everything went according to plan, until it didn't.
NASA astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin lifted off as scheduled at 2:40 p.m. (3:40 a.m. local time) Thursday from the Russia-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz booster rocket. They were to dock at the International Space Station six hours later, but the booster suffered engine failure minutes after the launch.
Both U.S. and Russian space officials said Hague and Ovchinin are safe and in good condition after an emergency landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan following the booster rocket failure — some good news for a large group of Hague's family gathered in his former hometown of Peabody to watch the launch.
"I would rather be disappointed that the mission failed as opposed to devastated by a catastrophic event," said Nick's cousin (and Newton resident), Randy Hague. "This was bad enough, but they made it back safe and everything."
Watching a live, private feed of the launch Randy said the only thing that could be heard in regards to the failed launch was that there was a "problem with the booster" before there was a 15-minute window of radio silence. Another five minutes passed before contact between mission control and the astronauts was re-established upon ballistic descent (equated to 6.7 times the force of gravity) after jettison of their capsule.
Though 20 minutes may not seem all that long, to the family members gathered in Peabody it was a harrowing moment.
"When you don't know, it's an eternity, believe me," Randy said, "and you could've heard a pin drop in the room. It got that quiet."
Randy said based on the reaction of the astronaut (Victor Glover Jr.) present at the watch party, he could tell the issue was serious, but the family was relieved to hear that Nick was in good condition back in Moscow following the unfortunate launch failure.
Moving forward, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov announced all Russian manned launches will be suspended pending an investigation into the cause of the failure.
How this affects Nick's future space travel is uncertain at this time, as he and Ovchinin were scheduled to spend the next half year aboard the ISS. There was no immediate word on whether the current space station crew might need to extend its own six-month mission, but official reports noted that leaving the station unmanned is trying to be avoided. Two spacewalks planned for later this month were put off indefinitely (as Hague was supposed to be one of the spacewalkers).
Another mission to the ISS is planned in December, though it is uncertain at this time if that launch will be moved up — as the astronauts Nick Hague and Ovchinin were intended to replace have already returned to Earth. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine did state he doesn't expect Thursday's failure to delay that upcoming mission. This does cast uncertainty on Nick's own space travel, with Thursday's launch his first scheduled spaceflight, but his family is optimistic he will have another opportunity to make his dream a reality.
"With him being top in his class," Randy said, "I think there's a very good chance he'll get another shot at it."
*The Associated Press contributed to this report.