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 N. “Nick” Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin had made it halfway to space before suddenly going in 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.”