In a bar in the small town of Peabody, Kan., in the middle of the night, astronaut Nick Hague’s family huddled around television screens.
Family members breathlessly awaited the result of the rocket launch, the culmination of a childhood dream for Hague, a 43-year-old Hoxie native and U.S. Air Force colonel.
Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are safe after an emergency landing early Thursday morning, following the failure of a Russian booster rocket carrying them to the International Space Station.
It was to be Hague’s first flight to the station, launching at 3:40 a.m. Thursday from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.
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The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, coordinated the launch, which had been planned for multiple years.
NASA coordinated a private event at Peabody’s Coneburg Inn exclusively for Hague’s extended family, sending astronaut Victor Glover to be a personal envoy to the family there. The Eagle was invited to the event.
Before launch, Glover made a presentation about the mission, boasting about the reliability of the Russian-made Soyuz rocket the two were to launch in.
“The most important person in NASA right now is Nick Hague,” he told the family.
The atmosphere in the bar was jovial — essentially a reunion for the family, who had driven and flown in from across the country to watch their relative launch into space.
Family members wore custom-made “Nick Hague Crew” jackets, with patches sewn on representing NASA, the International Space Station, and the official mission that took place Thursday.
Across the back of the jacket, a familiar phrase: “Ad astra per aspera.”
At 3:39 a.m., most everyone pointed their phones toward the TV.
“5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Liftoff!”
Cheers erupted throughout the bar.
A couple minutes after liftoff, however, a frantic message — “Failure, failure, failure,” blared across the live feed.
Hague and Ovchinin were shown being violently shaken in the vessel, and shortly thereafter the feed cut out — to be replaced with a look inside NASA’s mission control room.
Those precious few minutes of elation in Peabody quickly turned into an agonizing wait, as NASA confirmed there had been a booster problem with the rocket and the crew had to make an emergency exit.
Then began 5 minutes of silence — the only sound in the building was an electrical hum.
Glover, the NASA astronaut at the bar, received word that the astronauts were making a “ballistic descent,” a much steeper and faster return to Earth than what is ideal — but that search-and-rescue crews were in contact with the astronauts.
A nervous applause followed.
During the descent, the astronauts were subjected to high G-forces.
The two astronauts landed about 12 miles east of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan, where — an hour and a half later — rescue crews reported the two were in good condition.
“Scary, scary, scary — not what we wanted,” one family member said.
The Kansas astronaut
Hague would have been the fourth Kansan to go into outer space — the others being Steve Hawley, Joe Engle and Ronald Evans.
Growing up in western-Kansas Hoxie, Hague wanted to be an astronaut ever since he was 5 years old, family said.
Roxanne Mann, his aunt, said as a child, Hague colored a picture of an astronaut in a book and wrote, “This is what I’m going to be when I grow up.”
Clearly he knew even then.
Hague went to the United States Air Force Academy after graduating from Hoxie High School in 1994. He subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering from the academy in 1998. He then earned a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000.
He was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2013 and completed his astronaut training in 2015.
He is a colonel in the Air Force, and is married to Air Force Lt. Col. Catie Hague. They have two sons where they live in Houston.
The mission failure is stunning for the Soyuz rocket, which only had two launch failures on manned missions prior to Thursday — one in 1975 and one in 1983.
Dmitry Rogozin, chief of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, watched the launch together with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. He later tweeted that a “state commission” has been set up to investigate the cause of the booster failure.
While Russian rockets had earned a stellar reputation for their reliability in the past, a string of failed launches in recent years has called into doubt Russia’s ability to maintain the same high standards of their manufacturing.
According to the Associated Press, Russia has suspended all manned spaceflights pending an investigation into the failure.
Russia has been shuttling American astronauts to the International Space Station ever since NASA ended its shuttle program in 2011.
Russia will likely lose that monopoly in the coming years with the arrival of SpaceX’s Dragon v2 and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsules.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have sunk to post-Cold War lows over the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria and allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential vote, but Russia and the U.S. have maintained cooperation in space.
Hague and Ovchinin were to join the current three-person crew on the International Space Station to perform research experiments for six months.
Contributing: Associated Press