MOSCOW - A Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned two minutes after liftoff Thursday, Oct. 11, on a mission to the International Space Station, triggering an automatic abort command that forced the two-member crew - an American and Russian - to make a harrowing emergency landing in their capsule, 200 miles from the launch site in the steppes of Kazakhstan.
U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin had made it about halfway to space before suddenly going the other direction. They fell about 31 miles back to the surface, according to NASA. They were immediately located by rescue teams, retrieved from the capsule with no apparent injuries, and flown back to the launch site for an emotional reunion with their families.
The failure of the Soyuz MS-10 rocket immediately led to the grounding of the Soyuz fleet and will have cascading effects for U.S. and Russian space programs, along with their international partners. The Soyuz is the only way to get to and from the station.
This was a terrifying day, but not a tragic one. Something went very wrong - a failure of unknown origin during the firing of the Soyuz MS-10 rocket's second booster - but the escape system worked perfectly.
"It wasn't quite the day that we planned, but it is great to have Nick and Alexey at least back on the ground," said Kenny Todd, who directs space station operations for NASA. "This is a very difficult business that we're in. And it can absolutely humble you."
The launch looked good until a red light illuminated inside the capsule.
"Failure of the booster," a translator called out at mission control near Moscow, according to a transcript on Russian state TV.
The computers took over. The capsule automatically separated from the rocket. The crew felt a jolt and then quickly reported being weightless: They were in free fall back to Earth.
The crew members then initiated a "ballistic" trajectory that put Hague and Ovchinin under more than six times the force of gravity and put the capsule into a spin.
"We are getting ready for the G loads," Ovchinin reported to mission control. "G load is 6.7."
They were briefly out of contact. NASA's deputy chief astronaut, Reid Wiseman, said his heart was pounding as he wondered where the capsule would come down. The desert? The mountains? At that point only gravity was in control, and rescue teams in helicopters raced to where they thought the capsule would land.
Parachutes deployed automatically. The gray-colored capsule tumbled onto grassy flatlands. As night fell in Central Asia, Hague and Ovchinin were being examined by medical officials and would soon likely return to Russia to the space training facility in Star City.
Right now the space station has a crew of three - an American, a German and a Russian. They may find their mission extended, but at some point they will need to return to Earth. Thursday's accident led NASA officials to acknowledge that they and their partners might need to bring everyone home and hope that the station can function safely with no one onboard, relying solely on commands from the ground.
On the orbiting space station, the three crew members were kept informed of the events on Earth.
"The boys have landed," mission control told the astronauts, who arrived at the space station in June and were scheduled to return Dec. 13.
Russia's Interfax news agency, citing sources in Russia's space program, said the space station crew will likely have to wait until early next year before another mission can be planned to bring supplies and take them home.
Russian officials said crewed space launches have been suspended pending an investigation into the malfunction. Interfax also said all uncrewed launches could be halted for the rest of the year, citing space program sources.
Space is a rare area of cooperation between Moscow and Washington, whose ties have deteriorated to lows not seen since the Cold War over issues such as Russian election interference and the crises in Syria and Ukraine.
Thursday's accident also comes as both nations remain at odds over the cause of a small hole discovered on the Soyuz MS-09 module attached to the International Space Station in August.
Moscow says the hole is the result of deliberate drilling and has suggested sabotage, while the U.S. space agency said earlier this week that investigators will determine the cause.
Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin said he was forming a state commission to investigate what caused the failure. It was the first time that the Soyuz - the main workhorse of crewed space flight today - had failed on a launch to the 20-year-old International Space Station.
A manufacturing error could be to blame, Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed Russian space expert as saying. "They may have made a mistake at the factory or the cosmodrome while attaching the side segments to the central one," he said.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov, who oversees space flight, promised to share all information from the investigation with the United States.
The failure on Thursday puts tremendous pressure on NASA and the two companies - SpaceX and Boeing - it has hired to fly its astronauts to the space station.
In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop vehicles capable of ferrying astronauts to the station. But both companies have faced repeated delays, and NASA recently announced that neither would fly even an uncrewed test flight this year and that the first flights with astronauts on board wouldn't happen until the middle of 2019.
NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011 and ever since has relied on Russia to take American astronauts to and from the space station.
"We like having more than one operational system, and right now, by my count, we have zero," said Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who was a strong advocate for commercial crew during the Obama administration.
"You can look back at the decisions that were made, like retiring the shuttle, like Congress not providing the funding in the first years of commercial crew, which has delayed the availability of SpaceX and Boeing. In retrospect those don't look like wise decisions," said space policy expert John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University.
In June, the spacecraft Boeing plans to use to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station suffered a significant setback when during a test of its emergency abort system, officials discovered a propellant leak.
SpaceX has also suffered setbacks, but says it is ready to fly its first test mission to the station - without astronauts - in January.
Still, Phil McAlister, who oversees the commercial crew program for NASA, recently warned that "launch dates will still have some uncertainty, and we anticipate they may change as we get closer to launch. These are new spacecraft, and the engineering teams have a lot of work to do before the systems will be ready to fly."
The last time Moscow's space program had a crewed launch failure was during the Soviet era in 1983, when a Soyuz booster exploded. Cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov jettisoned and landed safely near the launchpad.
This article was written by Anton Troianovski, a reporter for The Washington Post.