Top 10 Space Related Tragedies
After World War II both the United States and the Soviet Union had an obsession with advancing their rocket technology, assisted by the German rocket scientists and superior German technology that each side managed to get hold of.
As the Cold War escalated both countries used their space programs to try to demonstrate their technical superiority over the other country, and the implied lead this meant in military capability. The first person in space, the first person to orbit the Earth, the first space station, the first person to the Moon, the longest time spent in space and so on.
This frenzied activity to demonstrate superiority in rocket and space technology meant rapid testing and development of these new technologies. Accidents and near misses were inevitable.
Although the research and education that led to improved technology provided the world with an incredible amount of spin-off benefits, there was a huge financial cost and, as detailed below, a huge personal cost.
10. Low Pressure Chamber
The first casualty of all the space programs was that of Russian cosmonaut Valentin Vasiliyevich Bondarenko on the 23rd March 1961. He was carrying out training in a low pressure chamber that was filled with pure oxygen. He accidentally dropped a cloth that was soaked in alcohol onto a hotplate. The cloth ignited and the chamber was filled with fire. Bondarenko died a short while later from burns to most of his body.
The Soviet government suppressed all details of this accident and many believe the fire aboard Apollo 1 may have been averted had NASA had this information.
Here are some marines doing training in a low pressure chamber:
9. X-15 Flight 3-65-97
The X-15 was an experimental rocket powered aircraft operated jointly by the USAF and NASA. It was used in the early 1960’s to go to the edge of space to test equipment and take readings which were used in the development of the American space program.
The X-15 holds a number of records including the fastest speed ever reached in a manned aircraft, 4,520 mph (7,274 km/h) or Mach 6.72.
Michael J. Adams was one of the USAFs most successful pilots. In his seventh X-15 flight on 15th November, 1967, Adams took the aircraft to 266,000 feet (81 km’s). On his way down the X-15 experienced problems and started spinning. The forces exerted on the plane were so severe that it broke up at around 65,000 feet.
Adams was posthumously awarded his Astronaut Wings for this flight.
If you like flying, speed and heights, or even if you don’t, this video is for you.
8. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15
The MiG-15 was an incredibly successful fighter jet and was used to train Russian cosmonauts. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space in April 1961, was training for a Soyuz mission in 1968 when he crashed his MiG-15 and was killed.
Here’s an overview of the MiG-15:
7. Northrop T-38 Talon
The T-38 was the world’s first supersonic training jet and was used by NASA in their astronaut training program. Four astronauts were killed in training accidents while piloting the T-38. They were:
Astronaut Theodore Freeman, 31st October 1964
Astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett, 28th February 1966
Astronaut Clifton Williams, 5th October 1967
NASA Pilots Stewart M. Present and Mark C. Heath, 20th January 1972
In addition, one death occurred in an F-104 Starfighter:
Astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., 8th December 1967
The USAF Introductory video on the T-38 Talon:
6. Soyuz 1
Like the American Apollo program, the Soviets got off to a bad start with their Soyuz program. There were problems throughout testing in the lead up to Soyuz 1 launch and it is reported that engineers pointed out several hundred faults to the Soviet authorities.
It appears that political pressure from the Politburo to stay ahead of America in the race to the moon caused mission planners to go ahead with the launch.
To complicate matters the Soviets were intending to launch Soyuz 2 a day after Soyuz 1 so that the two spacecraft could rendezvous.
Although the Soyuz 1 launch on the 23rd April 1967 went as planned, problems started appearing soon after. A solar panel failed to unfold, ion flow sensors had problems and the stabilization system failed soon after. The Soyuz 2 team started working on those faults in their own craft but were saved from going up because of the weather at the launch site.
Due to the problems Soyuz 1 was having the mission was aborted. After re-entry the drag parachute opened but the main parachute used to slow the craft to a manageable descent speed failed to open. The reserve parachute was deployed but it became entangled with the drag chute and couldn’t open properly.
There are differing reports as to why the main parachute didn’t open. One report has it that the parachute was made larger to cater for heavier heat tiles but the parachute container was left the same size. Apparently the parachute had to be forcibly squeezed into the container. Another scenario blames pressure sensors.
Whatever the cause of the problem, Soyuz 1 hit the ground at full speed, some 640 km/h (about 400 mph). It was flattened on impact and, just to make sure of the devastation, small rockets on the underside of the craft that would have been used to cushion the landing, exploded.
The sole occupant of Soyuz 1 was:
Vladimir M. Komarov: Commander
5. Apollo 1
The Apollo program was the third space program run by NASA following on from the Mercury and Gemini projects. The Apollo program had one goal and that was to put an American on the surface of the Moon before the end of the 1960’s.
In this goal the program was a huge success. Apollo 11 was the first mission to put man on the Moon on July 20th 1969 and another five landings took the total to 12 men on the Moon by the end of 1972.
However the Apollo program got off to a disastrous start when the three crew members perished in a cabin fire during a rehearsal of the launch. It was the 27th January 1967, more than three weeks away from the target launch date of 21st February.
The cause of the fire was never confirmed however there were found to be a number of design and construction issues that had the potential to be fatal to the crew. It was a controversial time for NASA.
Apollo 7 became the first manned mission in October 1968. The crew of Apollo 7 was the Apollo 1 back up crew.
The Apollo I crew members who perished on the ground were:
Virgil 1. “Gus” Grissom: Command Pilot
Edward H. White II: Senior Pilot
Roger B. Chaffee: Pilot
Original ABC footage from 1967.
4. Soyuz 11
The Soyuz spacecraft have been the mainstay of the Russian space program since the Soyuz 1 mission in 1967. The accompanying Soyuz rocket, which is based on the Soviets’ intercontinental ballistic missile, is one of the safest and most reliable launch rockets in the world.
On June 6th 1971 the Soyuz 11 mission took three crew up to the Salyut 1 space station which was the first space station, well, in space. The Salyut 1 had been launched into orbit in April of 1971 and the Soyuz 10 mission to put three crew in it failed due to technical problems.
Soyuz 11 successfully docked with Salyut and the three crew spent 23 days in the space station. This was a new record for the most amount of time spent in space and the first time humans had lived in a space station.
Tragically a pressure equalization valve on the Soyuz 11 malfunctioned at a height of 168 km’s (104 miles) as the craft was about to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and it opened earlier than it should have. Even though the re-entry looked to be normal, the recovery team found the astronauts dead in their seats. The cabin had depressurized and all three astronauts suffocated.
The crew members were:
Georgi Dobrovolski: Commander
Vladislav Volkov: Flight Engineer
Viktor Patsayev: Test Engineer
Some light relief. A detailed overview of the Soyuz spacecraft.
3. Space Shuttle Challenger, 1986
Video footage of the liftoff of the Challenger at 11.38 on January 28th, 1986, shows small puffs of smoke occurring within seconds of the craft leaving the ground. Analysis confirmed that O-ring seals in the right rocket booster had failed due to the cold weather at takeoff. (It was just 36 F, 15 degrees lower than the previous coldest launch). Hot gases then burned these O-rings causing the small puffs of smoke.
Just under 59 seconds into the flight a small flame appeared on the right rocket booster in the area of the failed O-ring. Within half a second the flame was visible without image enhancement and 60 seconds into the flight sensors showed that pressure in the right booster was lower than in the left booster.
The flame grew and was forced across the external tank by the rocket’s slipstream. At just under 65 seconds the amount and color of the smoke changed indicating a breach in the external tank which allowed hydrogen to mix with the flame. Sensors detected the change in pressure in the external tank.
45 thousands of a second after the breach in the external tank a bright glow had developed between the external tank and the underside of the Challenger.
Between 72 and 73.137 seconds after takeoff all the critical structural elements of the rocket boosters, external tank and the Challenger failed. Massive amounts of liquid oxygen and hydrogen mixed causing a surge in thrust and the appearance of an explosion as plumes of smoke enveloped the craft.
The Challenger was travelling at a speed of just under Mach 2 (over 650 m/sec) and was 14 km’s (46, 000 feet) above the Atlantic Ocean when it broke up in an explosive burn.
Incredibly the crew cabin survived the breakup although it’s not known if it depressurized or not (if it had depressurised the crew would have been unconscious within seconds. It is estimated that there would have been forces between 12 and 20 g’s at the time of the breakup. At the higher end of this range the g’s would have caused crew members to lose consciousness, but it would not have injured them. After investigating the parts recovered later, the settings of some control switches showed that the captain was most likely alive after break up and several of the Personal Egress Air Packs had been activated indicating that other crew members may also have been alive.
It is not known whether the crew lost consciousness as the Shuttle descended. However no one would have survived the impact with the ocean.
All seven crew members died. They were:
Francis R. Scobee: Commander
Michael J. Smith: Pilot
Greg Jarvis: Payload Specialist
Ronald McNair: Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka: Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik: Mission Specialist
Christa McAuliffe: Payload Specialist
Footage that’s familiar to most people in the world.
2. Space Shuttle Columbia, 2003
81.7 seconds after the Shuttle Columbia took off on January 16th, 2003, a piece of insulating foam detached from an area where the Orbiter attached to the External Tank. At 81.9 seconds this piece of foam hit the leading edge of the Columbia’s left wing. It was noticed the following day when all the launch video and photos were reviewed. The incident did not impact the mission at all at that point and the Columbia spent the next 16 days in orbit as planned.
The de-orbit burn which slows the Columbia down for re-entry went as planned as did re-entry. Re-entry occurs at the ‘Entry Interface’, an arbitrary altitude of 400,000 feet which is where the first effects of the Earth’s atmosphere are felt.
The first indication that something was wrong was 270 seconds after passing through the Entry Interface. The damage to the left wing was allowing superheated air (over 5,000 degrees F) to get in behind the heat resistant panels and into the wing, where the aluminium wing spars eventually melted.
At Entry Interface plus 555 seconds amateur video from the ground was showing pieces of the Orbiter separate from the ship. The left wing gave way in the denser atmosphere and the Orbiter spiralled out of control through the atmosphere at over 10,000 mph.
About 38 percent of the craft, 84,000 pieces, was recovered.
All seven crew members died. They were:
Rich Husband: Commander
William C. McCool: Pilot
Michael P. Anderson: Payload Commander
David M. Brown: Mission Specialist
Kalpana Chawla: Mission Specialist
Laurel Clark: Mission Specialist
Ilan Ramon: Payload Specialist
Part of a very good BBC documentary on this disaster including footage from the control room.
Footage showing several explosions and the disintegration of the Columbia.
1. Vostok Explosion at Plesetsk, 1980
The Plesetsk Cosmodrome, about 800 km (530 miles) north of Moscow, is Russia’s main space centre and one of the busiest rocket launch facilities in the world.
In 1980 a Vostok rocket was being refuelled here when it exploded, killing at least 50 people. The Vostok was Russia’s standard carrier rocket between 1960 and 1991. 158 Vostok launches took place during those years including the launch that put the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin.
It is believed that the use of lead-based solder instead of tin-based solder in filter components of the rocket caused the explosion.
The casualties were mostly young Russian soldiers. It is believed that 45 died at the time of the explosion while a further 5 died later. The accident was kept secret by the former USSR and was only made known to the outside world after the collapse of the communist government in 1989.
(Note: An ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) exploded at the Russians Baikonur Cosmodrome in 1960, also while being refuelled. The explosion killed at least 54 people including the Field Marshall in charge of the ICBM program. Although most ICBM’s will leave the Earth’s atmosphere, they are designed to deliver warheads and we don’t count them as part of a space program. So they don’t make it onto this list).
There are no photos or video of this disaster but this compilation of explosions gives us some idea of what it might have been like.
The engines on the Space Shuttle burn the fuel mixture of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen at the rate of half a ton per second. The three engines burn fuel so fast they would empty an average sized swimming pool in just 20 seconds.
The liquid oxygen is kept at -297 degrees F and the hydrogen at -423 degrees F. -423! It would be interesting to know how they get it that cold. Space is -454 F. Hence the one-inch thick foam insulation around the fuel tanks, although that hardly seems enough.
The vacuum in space means that the boiling point of liquids is dramatically reduced. If a human is exposed to space without a pressure suit the blood would instantly boil, every blood vessel in the body would burst and the body would essentially explode.