By Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL – As Russia suspended manned space launches pending an investigation into a failed booster rocket Thursday, Canadian officials were assessing the impact on astronaut David Saint-Jacques’ upcoming space voyage.
U.S. and Russian space officials said NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin were safe after a rocket failed two minutes into their flight to the International Space Station, forcing an emergency landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
Saint-Jacques, 48, of St-Lambert, Que. was part of the backup crew for Thursday’s failed space flight and was on site for the launch. He is scheduled to be aboard a Dec. 20 launch to the space station from the Russia-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told reporters that the Soyuz capsule automatically jettisoned from the booster when it failed.
He said all manned launches will be suspended pending an investigation into the cause of the failure, adding that Russia will share all relevant information with the United States.
The launch failure marks an unprecedented mishap for the Russian space program, which has been dogged by a string of other incidents.
It was not clear Thursday whether the failure would delay the launch for what would be Saint-Jacques’ first trip to the International Space Station.
Gilles Leclerc, director general of space exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, said the Russians have a good track record of identifying and quickly resolving problems.
“We’ll see if there’s an impact on the launch manifest to the space station,” he said from the agency headquarters in Longueuil, Que. “Right now, it’s wait and see for the Canadian Space Agency.”
Leclerc said the plan remains “to launch David Saint-Jacques as soon as possible to the space station: conduct experiments, doing science and being the figurehead of the human space flight program for Canada.”
He added that Saint-Jacques, who was travelling to Moscow Thursday before returning home to Houston, would not lose his spot on a launch in the event of any delays. Saint-Jacques was not immediately available for comment.
“Canada has a crew allocation on the International Space Station — on flight every four years or thereabouts,” Leclerc said. “There will be a Canadian flying to the space station very soon.”
Leclerc said astronauts train for all contingencies, including ballistic landings like the one on Thursday in which astronauts are subjected to heavy gravitational forces.
“It was a High-G experience. People who have gone through this type of incident report its like a car crash,” he said. “But they appear to be in good physical shape.”
Saint-Jacques said in September that an air leak at the International Space Station was like a wake-up call to remind astronauts that all the training they go through is for a reason.
The space agencies said the astronauts were in good condition after their capsule landed about 20 kilometres east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.
“Thank God, the crew is alive,” Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters when it became clear the crew had landed safely.
— With files from the Associated Press