American Nick Hague and Russian Aleksey Ovchinin were en route to the ISS when the secondary booster rocket on the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft they were in malfunctioned, forcing the two to abort the mission and parachute in a vessel back to the ground.
Video footage from the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome shows a large plume of smoke coming from the rocket at the moment it failed and footage from inside the capsule shows the two astronauts being violently shaken about.
The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan at 4:40 AM EDT.
"There was an issue with the booster from today's launch", a NASA statement said.
Search and rescue teams were deployed to the landing site. Eric Berger ofArs Technica reports that Russian sources said the failure occurred about two minutes into flight, suggesting the rocket had a problem during second stage separation, but the exact nature of the complication is unknown.
It was an unprecedented mishap for the Russian space programme and a criminal investigation is now under way to determine whether safety regulations had been violated during construction. Mission control told astronauts aboard the space station that during the landing, "the boys" experienced forces of about 6.7 G in a call that NASA later broadcast on the live commentary.
Head of Russian space agency Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin (C) poses with astronauts Alexey Ovchinin of Russia and Nick Hague of the USA, who survived the mid-air failure of a Russian rocket, on onboard a plane during a flight to Chkalovsky airport near Star City outside Moscow, Russia October 12, 2018.
Flight controllers kept the three space station residents abreast of the situation after Thursday's aborted launch. Shortly after launch, there was an anomaly with the booster and the launch ascent was aborted, resulting in a ballistic landing of the spacecraft.
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The Russian space program has suffered several failures in recent years.
The astronauts were to dock at the International Space Station six hours after the launch and join an American, a Russian and a German now aboard the station. "Teams are working with our Russian partners to obtain more information about the issue with the booster from today's launch", the United States agency said.
"The guys will fly for sure", Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said on Twitter, posting a picture of himself with smiling Ovchinin and Hague.
The fiercely pro-Kremlin Izvestia daily pointed out however the accident proved that the Soyuz had a reliable rescue system, designed in 1986.
Glitches found in Russia's Proton and Soyuz rockets in 2016 were traced to manufacturing flaws at the plant in Voronezh.
After their rescue, Hague and Ovchinin were set to be airlifted to a space flight training center outside of Moscow.
"The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is the only vehicle which is now able to send astronauts to space and bring them home form the International Space Station and it has been doing this for decades". Nasa tentatively plans to send its first crew to the ISS using a SpaceX craft instead of a Soyuz next April.