On Oct. 11, NASA astronaut Nick Hague was supposed to make the longest journey of his life to that point, traveling up to the International Space Station for a six-month stint. Instead, he and his colleague came abruptly tumbling back to Earth after the rocket experienced a booster failure a couple of minutes into the launch.
Today, Hague spoke to media and the public for the first time since the failed launch, sharing what it was like to be in the capsule and how he and his family are responding to the event.
"I imagined that my first trip to outer space was going to be a memorable one," Hague said in one of a series of interviews with selected reporters that were broadcast online. "I didn't expect it to be quite this memorable." [Here's What the Failed Soyuz Rocket Launch Looked Like to an Astronaut in Space]
"It was one bumpy roller-coaster ride"
To hear Hague tell it, things got messy fast inside the Soyuz capsule carrying him and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin. "It went from normal to something-was-wrong pretty quick," Hague said. "It was one bumpy roller-coaster ride, a lot of side-to-side motion, being tossed around, but it was over almost before it started."
The crew capsule automatically separated from the failed booster and lifted the astronauts away to safety, which is where all that side-to-side motion came from. "I knew once I saw that light that we had an emergency with the booster, that at that point we weren't going to make it to orbit that day — so the mission changed to getting back down on the ground as safely as we could," Hague said.
And, fortunately, he was well-situated to do just that. "This is not the first in-flight emergency that I've been a part of," Hague said, pointing to his time with the U.S. Air Force as a test pilot and in combat.
Plus, his astronaut training has prepared him for emergencies, he said. "I've spent the better part of the last two years in [Roscosmos headquarters at] Star City, Russia, inside a descent module where they have thrown every failure imaginable at us," Hague said. "We had actually run some scenarios where we had a booster failure and [they tested] our response to that."
What was more surprising to him was the physical experience itself. "Obviously, this is my first flight, so every sensation was new to me. Those are the things that are surprising," he said. "Those are all sensations that we don't get to simulate."
And there were more sensations to come; he and Ovchinin needed to prepare their bodies for the about 6.7 g's they pulled during re-entry. They also had to brace for the physical shock of the parachutes opening and catching the capsule in its descent.
In the midst of dealing with those sensations, Hague and Ovchinin also had to complete a to-do list. Hague described checking the vehicle's orientation and response, ensuring that valves were working properly, and communicating with the rescue teams.
Throughout the procedure, Hague and Ovchinin spoke in Russian, as they had been trained to do. Once they knew they were safe, they celebrated. "We looked at each other — we had grins from ear to ear," Hague said. "He holds out a hand. I shake his hand, and then we start cracking a few jokes between us about how short our flight was." [In Photos: Space Station Crew's Harrowing Abort Landing After Soyuz Launch Failure]
But Hague said he knows that his and Ovchinin's safety isn't a laughing matter. He expressed deep gratitude to the huge team of engineers that designed and built the safety systems on board the Soyuz.
"That's the system that saved our lives, and Alexey and I are standing because of that," Hague said. "It's on every rocket, and for manned launches on the Soyuz, they haven't had to use that system for 35 years, but it's always been there. It's always been ready, and we proved that last week."
Reactions to near-disaster
As soon as Hague and Ovchinin landed, they pulled out the spacecraft's satellite phone and called in to mission control and the rescue operation. Next, Ovchinin called his wife; then, it was Hague's turn to call his wife.
Hague and his wife, Cadie Hague, met during their careers in the Air Force, where Cadie Hague works for public affairs. Even while Nick Hague was still a test pilot there, she had a radio in her office broadcasting status updates from all flights in the air. "She's had practice at hearing that, hey, my flight's not going well, and managing the emotions," he said.
Nevertheless, there was one little problem with the safe-landing call: Cadie Hague didn't pick up. "Now, she's got a voice mail that she can keep as a memento for the rest of her life," Nick Hague said. And what did it say? "I told her, 'I'm fine and it was one wild ride.'"
When the pair were reunited in person, "She looked up to me and she said, 'Don't worry — you're going to get there,'" he added. (His younger son was more pragmatic, Nick Hague said; he just asked his dad when he would be going back to space.)
Nick Hague has also been reuniting with the astronaut corps back in Houston. But even before the long trip back to Johnson Space Center, he spoke with the astronauts he was supposed to join on the space station. "I'm laying there in the hospital bed" — just for observation, he's quick to note — "and I get a phone call from [astronauts] Alex [Gerst] and Serena [Auñón-Chancellor] on board [the space station], and they were giving me a hard time, saying that they were eating my dinner that they had prepared for me and had waiting for me," Hague said. [Expedition 56: The Space Station Mission in Photos]
Will he fly again?
Ever since NASA confirmed that Hague and Ovchinin landed safely, the first question on everyone's mind has been whether and when those astronauts will get another shot at the space station. Hague said that's not up to him but that he feels great and he's already told NASA that he's ready to fly again whenever the agency can schedule him. "I'm super thankful that I'm alive and kicking today and that I'll have another opportunity in the future," Hague said.
He shrugged off any concerns about the safety of the Soyuz rocket and capsule, expressing complete confidence in the ability of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to find and address the cause of the launch failure.
"The Soyuz is an engineering marvel," Hague said. "That thing is reliable, and I'm just glad that there are so many people that have invested so many years of their life making that system as strong as it is."
While Hague is clearly personally bummed that he didn't make it all the way to the space station this time around, he emphasized that it's about more than himself. "We all realize that it's a very hard business that we are a part of. You're not always going to be successful, but you've got to persevere," he said. "What we're trying to accomplish with human exploration of space, the things that we're trying to discover, expanding the boundaries of human understanding, that's what we're trying to do, and it's worth it."
That said, he did manage a few fleeting moments of weightlessness, peering out the window of a spacecraft while beyond the bounds of gravity. "We got to the apex of our trajectory, and I looked out the window and I saw the curve of the Earth out there and the blackness of space. And it was a bittersweet, fleeting moment knowing that I got that close but that it wasn't going to work out that time," Hague said.
"What can you do? Sometimes, you don't get a vote, and so this time, we'll roll with the punches. You just try to celebrate the little gifts that you get, like walking the boys to school this morning."
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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.