10 SPACE MISSION DISASTERS
Space. The final frontier. The great unknown. It’s one of the greatest enigmas of our lifetime, sparking discovery missions since the early 1960s. While there were successes over the years, like Yuri Gagarin’s momentous voyage, there also have been devastating failures, like these ten failed space flights.
The crew of the Columbia, which launched on January 16th, 2003, embarked on an international scientific research flight that remained in flight for 16 days. Throughout the course of their time in space, the crew conducted various experiments, including studying the physics of combustion and extinguishing of fire in microgravitational situations and evaluation of the formation of zeolite crystals. On February 1st, upon reentry, the Columbia broke up just 16 minutes before it was scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center. The disaster was found to have been caused by a foam piece falling from an external tank and breaching the craft’s wing – an issue that NASA had experienced and knew of in the past. All seven crew members, which included Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, perished.
On January 28th, 1986, much of America was glued to their televisions to watch the successful launch of the Challenger space shuttle. At no point did anyone have reason to stop and think that, only 73 seconds after launch, the craft would explode in mid-air, killing the seven crew members, including a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, taking part in the Teachers in Space program. Despite warnings by engineers that the O-ring seals were unfit during colder temperatures, the flight went ahead as planned. The investigation after the disaster revealed exactly what was warned – the O-Ring seal failed to isolate flames from the booster, which reached the external fuel tank and caused the craft to disintegrate in a plume of smoke and fire.
Soyuz 11 (1971)
It’s difficult to call a mission a success when those involved don’t survive it, and though it wasn’t the first time an astronaut had been lost in a space mission, the crew of the Soyuz 11 became the first to die in space. After spending 23 days in orbit aboard the Soyuz 11 and, boarding the world’s first space station, the Salyut 1, Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev were scheduled to return home. The craft’s reentry and landing was fully automated and had it not been, it never would have gone so smoothly. At some point during the separation of orbital and descent modules, an air vent had opened, subjecting the three to a fatal space vacuum. When their bodies were recovered, it was determined they had died from suffocation.
Soyuz 1 (1967)
Launched on April 23rd, 1967, the Soyuz 1, commanded by Vladimir Komarov, was to engage with Soyuz 2 to exchange crew members. Though Komarov’s craft launched without issue, the Soyuz 2 never got off the ground, its launch impeded by thunderstorms. Not long after Soyuz 1 took flight, it started to experience many of the 203 design faults that engineers warned of prior to launch, but it’s biggest malfunction occurred on reentry. In response to Komarov’s reports of a shortage of power, loss of automatic stabilization, and issues with orientation detectors, he was advised to abort the mission and return to Earth. Upon reentry, the many complications didn’t hinder his descent, but when his main parachute failed to unfold, Komarov was sent on a fatal crash back to ground.
Apollo 13 (1970)
One of NASA’s most well-known, unsuccessful missions, the 1970 Apollo 13 mission was a near-disaster that, through perseverance, skill, and luck, ended with the three astronauts - Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise – landing safely back on Earth. The craft was destined for the moon, but two days after launching, an oxygen tank exploded, causing the Service and Command Modules to malfunction. The three suffered through the loss of heat and power, limited supplies, increased carbon dioxide levels, and had their expertise tested when improvised repairs were needed. On April 17th, six days after the initial launch, they returned home and none of the three would return to space after the incident.
Soyuz 33 (1979)
On April 10th, 1979, the Soviet Space Agency launched the Soyuz 33 to dock with the Salyut 6 space station. Once connected with the station, the cosmonauts on the Soyuz 33, Bulgarian Georgi Ivanov and Soviet Russian Nikolai Rukavishnikov, were scheduled to partake in a series of experiments. Though the craft reached orbit with no cause for concern, as it approached Salyut 6, its main engine disengaged during a planned burn. After a second attempt at a burn, Rukavishnikov determined the engine was flaring out and could explode if pushed. Two days after launch, the Soyuz 33 was instructed to return to Earth, but would have to use an untested backup engine. After a 213 second burn, the craft reentered Earth’s atmosphere, reaching acceleration of up to 10g before landing safely.
Gemini 8 (1966)
NASA’s race to the moon wasn’t an easy one as the path was marked with years of research, study, and failure. Three years before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon, his quick thinking saved the lives of the crew of the Gemini 8. The craft, piloted by Armstrong and co-pilot David Scott, docked with a radio-controlled Agena target vehicle, but the success was short-lived. While still connected, the thrusters on both vessels began firing uncontrollably, causing them to spin. Once undocked from the Agena, the Gemini reached one revolution per second. Before losing consciousness, Armstrong disengaged the thrusters and manually fired the backup thrusters to stop the spin. Though the mission was a partial success in showing two ships could dock in space, Gemini 8 was abruptly aborted to bring the crew home safely.
Soyuz 7K-T No. 39 (1975)
Known to some as Soyuz 18a or the April 5 Anomaly, Soyuz 7K-T No. 39 was manned by Vasili Lazarev and Oleg Makarov. The goal after launch was to dock with the Salyut 4 space station for 60 days, making it the second mission to rendezvous with the station. Scheduled for launch on April 5th, 1975, at 288.6 seconds after take-off, at an altitude of 90 miles or roughly 145-kilometers, the booster’s second and third stages commenced separation, only to have three of the six locks actually release. After the third stage’s engines ignited, the second stage released and the craft was blown off trajectory. The two crewmembers took control of the Soyuz, separating from the third stage, but were already pointed downward towards Earth. Despite their accelerated descent, the parachutes opened and they survived the ordeal.
Soyuz 7K-ST No. 16L (1983)
With the intention of connecting with Salyut 7, the Soyuz 7K-ST No. 16L or the T-10a was prepped for launch on September 26th, 1983. Like the Soyuz T-8, which Vladimir Titov had been aboard, the Soyuz T-10a failed to reach the Salyut 7 space station; but unlike the T-8, the T-10a never even made it off the ground. During the launch countdown, propellant expelled across the launch pad and caught fire, which spread quickly, threatening the lives of Titov and his flight engineer, Gennady Strekalov. In the inferno, the control cables for the escape mechanism had burned through, forcing a manual evacuation that seemed to take more time than the astronauts had. As the fire burned on the launch pad, the two aboard the T-10a were able to escape after separating from the vessel’s booster.
Charged with launching the Progress M-12M Russian craft to resupply the International Space Station, the Soyuz-U rocket failed its final mission on August 24th, 2011. The unmanned rocket launched from Baikonur Site 1/5, but 325 seconds into the flight, malfunctions started to threaten the success of the mission. One rocket engine, specifically the RD-0110 engine, failed in mid-flight, causing the automated control to terminate the rocket’s thrust. With no upward momentum, Soyuz-U and Progress M-12M never achieved orbit and instead crashed over the Altai Republic in Russia, marking the first time a Progress craft had failed to reach orbit. Further inspection of the defunct craft pointed to a blocked fuel duct that ceased operations in the engines.