It wasn't immediately known whether the cosmic samples had been destroyed. NASA officials believed the fragile disks that held the atoms would shatter even if the capsule hit the ground with a parachute.
"There was a big pit in my stomach," said physicist Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which designed the atom collector plates. "This just wasn't supposed to happen. We're going to have a lot of work picking up the pieces."
Hollywood stunt pilots had taken off in helicopters to hook the parachute, but the refrigerator-sized capsule — holding a set of fragile disks containing billions of atoms collected from solar wind — hit the desert floor without the parachute opening.
The capsule was returning after more than three years in space as part of six-year project that cost $260 million.
The impact drove the capsule halfway underground. NASA engineers feared the explosive for the parachute might still be alive and ready to fire, keeping helicopter crews at bay.
"That presents a safety hazard to recovery crews," said Chris Jones, solar system exploration director for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The copters were supposed to snatch the capsule's parachute with a hook as it floated down at 400 feet a minute, or more than 6 feet per second. But the capsule tumbled out of control. It was supposed to be spinning at 15 revolutions a minute to slice evenly through the atmosphere, but camera images showed it tumbling instead.
"Everyone was thrilled as they saw the pictures of the spacecraft coming back, and it just changed — it was like a 180-degree turnabout as it suddenly crashed on the surface of the Earth," reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman. "There was just dead silence here."
Scientists hoped the capsule's charged atoms — a "billion billion" of them — would reveal clues about the origin and evolution of our solar system, said Don Burnett, Genesis principal investigator and a nuclear geochemist at California Institute of Technology.
"We have for years wanted to know the composition of the sun," Burnett said before the crash. He said scientists had expected to analyze the material "one atom at a time."
Genesis had been moving in tandem with Earth outside its magnetic shield on three orbits of the sun.
Cliff Fleming, the lead helicopter pilot, and backup pilot Dan Rudert had replicated the retrieval in dozens of practice runs. Fleming and Rudert, stunt pilots by trade, were drafted for the mission because of their expertise flying high and capturing objects. Fleming has swooped after sky surfers in the action movie "XXX" and towed actor Pierce Brosnan through the air in "Dante's Peak." He just worked on "Batman 4."
The Genesis mission, launched in 2001, marked the first time NASA has collected any objects from farther than the moon for retrieval to Earth, said Roy Haggard, Genesis' flight operations chief and CEO of Vertigo Inc., which designed the capture system.
Together, the charged atoms captured over 884 days on the capsule's disks of gold, sapphire, diamond and silicone were no bigger than a few grains of salt, but scientists say that would be enough to reconstruct the chemical origin of the sun and its family of planets.
Scientists had expected to study the material for five more years.