10 Worst Space Disasters in History
This week marks the anniversary of the recovery of the remains of Challenger’s crew on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. On March 10, 1986, the Navy and NASA announced that they had found a compartment that contained the remains of the ill-fated space shuttle’s crew.
When I think about space disasters, I am reminded of the space battle between Earth and Trisolaris in Liu Cixin’s fantastic sci-fi novel. Stay with me here. Liu Cixin’s Dark Forest novel needs to be read. In the novel, humans make contact with a nearby alien civilization, who proceed to make plans to invade earth, wipe out its human population, and re-populate it with themselves. The first battle between Earth’s space forces and the would-be invaders ends badly for Earth, as thousands of space warships are destroyed in a matter minutes by a Trisolaran probe. The novel brings up an uncomfortable theory that humans have been all-too-willing to neglect: what if the universe is a hostile, deadly place instead of a curious one? Nick Nielsen is asking important questions about humanity’s place in the stars, and Caleb Scharf is doing wonderful work explaining how life in the universe is likely to confront us at this stage of our development.
Despite the massive amount of attention that surrounds space flight disasters, only four have actually happened in space, and only 18 people have died in space (14 astronauts and four cosmonauts). This is due to the vast amounts of effort, planning, intelligence, and energy that go into space flight. In fact, most of the deadliest disasters happen on earth during the preparation phase, where painstaking practice is undertaken in order to execute space flight to perfection. So, in honor of those who have given their lives for humanity’s place among the stars, here are History’s 10 Worst Space Disasters:
10. Columbia (February 1, 2003). The Columbia Space Shuttle had served NASA and the United States for 22 years before it exploded in space upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. In 22 years, Columbia had flown 27 space flights before disaster struck on the 28th mission. The destruction of NASA’s second space shuttle put the entire program on hold for two years, and supplies to the International Space Station had to be flown in by a public-private Russian space agency, Roscosmos (which has since become nationalized).
9. Soyuz 11 (June 29, 1971). This disaster marks the only time in human history that people died in actual space, and the three cosmonauts who perished also set a then-record for longest time spent in a space station at 22 days. (The Americans broke the cosmonaut’s record in 1973 with Skylab.) The Soviet explorers also ran on a treadmill (which shook the whole space station), made live television broadcasts to the Soviet Union, and put out a fire. They died when their cabin depressurized during the flight home, though there was no other damage to Soyuz 11. True to form, the Soviet government refused to reveal the truth of what happened until many years later. An American astronaut, Tom Stafford, was one of the pallbearers during the large state funeral that was held for the cosmonauts.
8. Nedelin catastrophe (October 24, 1960). While the Soviets were testing a missile for space launch in what is now Kazakhstan, it exploded and killed or maimed hundreds of people. True to Soviet form, the official death toll is unknown, but estimates range from 92-126 deaths and hundreds more injured. The disaster was so bad that the Soviet Union refused to acknowledge the event until its dying breath, in the waning days of glasnost. Named after M.I. Nedelin, the Soviet Union’s head of its Strategic Rocket Forces, the preparations for the launch were pushed hard by Nedelin as a result of political pressure from Moscow (he was killed in the explosion).
7. Voskhod 2 spacewalk near-catastrophe (March 1965). In the early and mid-1960s the Soviet Union was dominating the space race, reaching milestone after milestone years before the United States. In March of 1965 Alexey Leonov became the first human being to perform a spacewalk. For 12 minutes, 9 seconds Leonov walked around in space, but when he tried to re-enter Voskhod 2, he found that he could not fit through the door because his suit had ballooned, and things got so tense inside the spaceship that Soviet television and radio was cut off from the masses. The troubles for Leonov and his team did not end there, though. While he was able to squeeze inside Voskhod 2, sealing the door proved a nuisance and it was only with some old-fashioned Soviet makeshift tinkering that the crew was able to seal themselves off from the vast darkness of space. Oh, and Voskhod 2 also landed 300 miles off course, in the Siberian tundra, where rescue crews could not reach them via helicopter. So, they sent in a ski squad who built them a log cabin and a very large fire. Alexey Leonov is still alive today, living the good life in Russia, but before he retired he commanded the Soviet half of the first-ever joint space project between the United States and the Soviet Union.
6. Intelsat 708 incident (February 15, 1996). When China entered the space race in the 1990s, nobody took Beijing seriously. Things have changed. In the mid-1990s, though, a test rocket misfired and landed in a nearby village, killing at least six people. Here’s the real kicker, though. American technology companies were working with the Chinese rocket scientists, as they wanted to get their products within a budget that could work for them. The Intelsat 708 incident sparked Congress to pass some legislation that prohibited technology flowing so easily out of the United States. Corporations were fined millions of dollars. And 1996 was the last time the United States and China worked together on rocket science.
5. Alcântara VLS accident (August 22, 2003). China is not the only country to try and catch the United States in the space race. The European Union had been trying, with some success, over the years, and Russia’s space program is, of course, resurgent. How about Brazil? You better believe it. There are actually a whole slew of countries trying to build space programs, such as India, Pakistan, Mexico, South Africa, and Iran. The Alcântara VLS accident, which happened to Brazil’s space program, serves as a brutal reminder of what happens when countries push too hard for immediate results. Twenty-one people were killed when a rocket exploded on its launching pad in northern Brazil. Smoke from the jungle fire that was started by the explosion could be seen from hundreds of miles away. Brazil’s space program continues apace.
4. Plesetsk launch pad disaster (March 18, 1980). Back in the U.S.S.R., in 1980, a launch pad disaster killed 48 people and injured another 87. Pravda announced its success to the Soviet people, and nobody knew about the death toll until, again, glasnost ran its course and information began to reach the West in 1989. The official explanation for the deadly explosion pinned the blame on the dead crew, but when another explosion of exactly the same type was narrowly avoided just 16 months later, it was determined that there was an engineering problem that needed to be addressed. Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty does a marvelous job explaining why the Soviet Union just could not seem to work like a centrally-planned economy was supposed to.
3. Soyuz 1 (April 24, 1967). Somebody had to eventually man the first flight of the first generation Soyuz 7K-Ok spacecraft. That somebody was a hero of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Komarov, an engineer who commanded to the first-ever space flight to carry more than one passenger. Komarov also has the distinction of being the first human being to die in space, after Soyuz 1’s parachutes failed to open upon re-entry. All was not lost, though. Soyuz 1’s failure postponed the Soviet Union’s space program, and significant improvements were made in the 18-month interregnum. The Soyuz program never achieved its goal of putting a man on the moon, but thanks to its failures, the Russian people have contributed immensely to the exploration and understanding of space. The Mir, Salyut, and Zond programs, along with Moscow’s tremendous support for the International Space Station, have hopefully solidified Russia’s place in the far future of human history.
2. Apollo 1 (January 27, 1967). The cabin fire that took the lives of Apollo 1’s three crew members was, like the Soyuz 1 failure, a blessing in disguise. Because of Apollo 1’s disaster, the American space program took a good long look at itself and began focusing on safety as well as exploration and science. Unlike in the Soviet Union, the Apollo 1 tragedy was widely reported on. The American people had to grasp what it meant, each and every one of us, as individuals and as members of communities that we freely chose to join. Even Congress got in on the act and held tough, meaningful sessions about the nature of the republic’s space program. We are all better off thanks to the Apollo 1 disaster.
1. Challenger (January 28, 1986). Seven crew members, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, were killed when the Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight. The launch was televised and it's been reported that nearly 50 percent of all schoolchildren watched it, because McAuliffe was the first civilian to go into space. The tragedy is inedelibly inked onto the brains of multiple generations. The disaster was caused by a flaw in the "O-ring," that had been identified, but improperly addressed. The tragedy resulted in a nearly three-year break in the shuttle program. When the shuttle program finally resumed, the boosters were redesigned, and NASA adopted a more conservative safety program.
Have a good weekend.