NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin launched aboard a Soyuz rocket at about 4:47 a.m. EDT (0847 GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But just a couple of minutes after liftoff, a failure in the rocket's booster triggered a ballistic re-entry for the pair of would-be space travelers. Investigations into the Soyuz launch failure will be performed by NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. [In Photos: The Harrowing Soyuz Launch Abort in Pictures]
The astronauts landed safely and were picked up by a search-and-rescue team that was deployed as part of standard launch procedure.
Although the dramatic launch barely made it to space before the capsule tumbled back to Earth, it was certainly visible from space. Gerst was able to spot the rocket's climb from on board its hoped-for destination, capturing a majestic streak of white piercing Earth's atmosphere.
"Glad our friends are fine," Gerst wrote in a statement accompanying the image. "Thanks to the rescue force of over 1,000 search-and-rescue professionals! Today showed again what an amazing vehicle the Soyuz is to be able to save the crew from such a failure. Spaceflight is hard. And we must keep trying for the benefit of humankind."
Gerst and his colleagues on the space station were alerted to the launch failure and the safe landing of Hague and Ovchinin in a call from mission control management on the ground. Their schedule was adjusted because they didn't need to help new crewmembers acclimate to the station.
The three astronauts currently in orbit are due to return to Earth and be replaced by a new trio of astronauts in December. However, it's not yet clear how schedules will be adjusted to reflect Thursday's failed launch to ensure continuous staffing of the orbiting laboratory.