Updated at 11:35 a.m. ET on January 11.
On the afternoon of the failed launch, Jim Bridenstine of NASA and Dmitry Rogozin of Roscosmos had only known each other for a few days. Less than one mile from the launchpad, the heads of the American and Russian space agencies watched as the Soyuz system lofted the crew, one man from each country, into the blue sky over Kazakhstan.
But then, inside the crew capsule, alarms blared and emergency lights flashed. Instead of climbing into space, the capsule began to plunge back to Earth. In those stressful moments—before the capsule parachuted gently to the ground, before rescue crews arrived, before the would-be space travelers reunited with their family—each official considered what he might say if the failed launch ended in tragedy.
“If we’re going to strengthen the partnership with the United States and Russia on space exploration, I think this was probably one way to do it,” Bridenstine told me later, after he had returned to the United States. “Everybody became a lot closer on this day.”
On the ground, the United States and Russia might have conflicting interests, but in space, 250 miles above Earth, they get along nicely. On the International Space Station, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts share meals, routines, and a stunning view of our little planet. That same spirit of cooperation characterized the handling of the failed launch in October—the quick rescue response, the careful investigation of hardware, the eventual return to spaceflight less than two months later—and after Bridenstine’s visit to Russia, he sought to reciprocate the invitation. Bridenstine had addressed Rogozin’s alma mater, Moscow State University, and he suggested that in early 2019 Rogozin deliver a speech at his own, Rice University in Texas.*