Moscow • A Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned two minutes after liftoff Thursday on a mission to the International Space Station, triggering an automatic abort command that forced the two-member crew — an American and a Russian — to make a harrowing parachute landing in their capsule, 200 miles from the launch site in the steppes of Kazakhstan.
U.S. astronaut Tyler "Nick" Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin had made it halfway to space before suddenly going the other direction. They fell about 31 miles back to the ground, according to NASA. They were quickly located by rescue teams and flown back to the launch site for an emotional reunion with their families.
The failure of the Soyuz MS-10 rocket effectively halts all American and Russian access to space pending an investigation into what went wrong. For seven years, since NASA retired the space shuttle, the United States has relied on Russian hardware to ferry Americans to and from the space station.
Thursday's dramatic developments ratcheted up pressure on Boeing and SpaceX, the two companies that were supposed to have commercial spacecraft ready for launch this year but have experienced delays and are not expected to be ready until the middle of next year at the earliest.
Three crew members currently on the space station are in no danger, NASA said. They have adequate supplies for an extended mission beyond their planned Dec. 13 return and can get home in a spare Soyuz spacecraft currently attached to the space station. But there are limits to how long the Soyuz module can remain in orbit before its fuel is no longer reliable.
Another three-person crew is scheduled to launch in December for the station, but that mission is imperiled by Thursday's rocket failure. NASA officials said it's possible that at some point the astronauts in space will have to return to Earth with no crew to replace them.
NASA is not eager to abandon, even temporarily, the $100 billion orbital laboratory, which requires constant maintenance and has never before been operated solely by ground commands.
Big decisions lie ahead, but on Thursday, U.S. and Russian officials expressed relief after the close brush with disaster. This was a terrifying day — but not a tragic one because the escape system worked.
"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 television.
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 during the 34-minute descent. NASA's deputy chief astronaut, Reid Wiseman, said his heart was pounding as he wondered where the capsule would come down. 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 capsule tumbled onto its side on a grassy flatland.
Hague and Ovchinin were examined by medical officials and deemed in good shape.
"Glad our friends are fine," tweeted Alexander Gerst from the European Space Agency, the station commander. "Spaceflight is hard. And we keep trying for the benefit of humankind."
Russian officials said crewed space launches have been suspended pending an investigation into the malfunction. Russia's Interfax news agency also said all uncrewed launches could be halted for the rest of the year, citing space program sources.
Thursday's launch failure came at a dicey moment in the U.S.-Russia space partnership. The two nations have been congenial 250 miles above the Earth's surface even when events on the ground, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea or the interference of Russia in the 2016 election, have stoked tensions.
But the United States and Russia have been at odds over the cause of a small hole discovered in August on the Soyuz module — Soyuz MS-09 — currently docked at the space station. Moscow says the hole, now repaired, was the result of deliberate drilling and has suggested sabotage, while the U.S. space agency said this week that investigators will determine the cause.
Against that backdrop, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine traveled to Kazakhstan to witness Thursday's launch and meet his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin of Roscosmos. The summit turned far more dramatic than either had imagined.
Rogozin said he was forming a state commission to investigate what caused the failure. It was the first time the Soyuz had failed on a launch to the 20-year-old International Space Station. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov, who oversees space flight, promised to share all information from the investigation with the United States.
The failure puts tremendous pressure on NASA and the two companies — SpaceX and Boeing — it is counting on to fly its astronauts to the space station. Both companies have faced repeated delays. 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.
"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 officials discovered a propellant leak during a test.
SpaceX also has 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.”
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.
Achenbach reported from Washington. The Washington Posts Christian Davenport in Los Angeles and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.