Space Flight Catastrophes

The 6 most disastrous space flight catastrophes! These dangerous spaceship accidents have caused the death of many astronauts throughout space travel history.

6: The Challenger Disaster

January 28th, 1986: space shuttle Challenger breaks apart less than two minutes into the space flight, killing all seven of the crew members on board. The disaster was the result of an O-ring failure, which ultimately led pressurized gas from the rocket motor pouring out onto the external fuel tank. This caused the orbiter to break apart. When the Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, it was not known how quickly the seven crew members died. It comprised of Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, and Christa McAuliffe. Photos of the disaster show that the crew cabin did exit the wreckage in tact as it plummeted towards the ocean. Experts agree that if the cabin did not depressurize, it was likely that they were still alive from the time of the breakup until the cabin crashed into the ocean. But the violent impact with the ocean’s surface would have killed any crew member that was still alive during the space flight. It was not possible for the crew to escape safely. NASA opted to not include launch escape systems in the shuttle, believing the shuttles were so reliable that the need for an escape system was unnecessary and technically unfeasible. After the disaster, NASA looked back into the prospect of launch escape systems and designed a system that gave crews the ability to escape the shuttle during gliding flight. But even this feature would not have saved the lives of its seven-member crew.

5: Soyuz 11

The three-member crew of the Soyuz 11 died on June 30th, 1971 while attempting to re-enter earth’s atmosphere. When their cabin became depressurized, the three cosmonauts, Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev all suffocated to death. They hold the distinction of being the only three people to die in space. Their mission had been to board the world’s first space station, Salyut 1. They did that successfully and stayed for 22 days, performing tasks such as replacing a ventilation system, holding a live TV broadcast, and even had plans to observe a rocket launch…a plan that had to be postponed. On June 30th, everything appeared to be going fine. But after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and a seemingly successful landing in the Soviet Union, officials opened the capsule door to find all three men sitting motionless. They were bleeding from their ears and noses, and appeared to have blue marks all over their faces. Doctors determined that the crew had suffocated to death. When a ventilation valve accidentally jolted open, it caused the pressure equalization seal to loosen. This was the seal that kept the required amount of pressure in the cabin. Once the cabin lost its pressure, it’s likely that the cosmonauts died within seconds. The state-controlled Soviet media did not release details of the cause of death for nearly two years after the tragedy. However, there was a memorial placed at the spot where the capsule landed, and a group of hills on Pluto has been named Soyuz Colles in their honor. Despite being in the midst of the Cold War with the United States, U.S. President Richard Nixon released a statement expressing his condolences to the Soviet Union.

4: The Columbia Disaster

On February 1st, 2003, all seven crew members of the Space Shuttle Columbia were killed when their shuttle disintegrated upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. As it turns out, a piece of foam had broken off from the external tank during liftoff and hit the wing of the orbiter. When the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere, it caused hot atmospheric gases to destroy the wing, ultimately causing the shuttle to break apart. The crew consisted of Commander Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, and David M. Brown. NASA was aware of the displaced piece of foam, but at the time did not think it would hinder the safety of the mission. On four previous flights, foam insulation had fallen off, yet the missions were completed successfully on all four flights. So after they noticed the chunk of foam on January 16th, they concluded that it did not pose enough of a risk to alter the mission. The voyage was described as a “multi-disciplinary microgravity and Earth science research mission.” After accomplishing much of what they set out to do, the crew attempted to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A video taken in the crew cabin as they prepared to re-enter the atmosphere showed the crew proceeding as normal and did not indicate that there were any problems. However, roughly 15 minutes after the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere, it los a thermal protection system tile from its orbiter. About a minute later, ground control lost contact with the shuttle. Soon after, eyewitnesses near Dallas report seeing the shuttle disintegrating overhead. Although the crew cabin likely remained intact during much of the break up, it would have depressurized rather quickly; thus killing all seven crew members in less than a minute. Eventually the cabin broke apart, killing any of the crew that was not already dead. Residents of Tyler, Texas reported hearing a loud boom and soon after, NASA quickly sent a search-and-rescue team to recover the debris. Debris was collected over an area in East Texas, parts of Louisiana, and Arkansas. Thousands of volunteers participated in the search for debris. Along with pieces from the shuttle, human remains were found as well. In honor of the seven victims, President George W. Bush led a memorial service for the families of the fallen astronauts. A memorial was built in the Arlington National Cemetery while the Houston Astros honored the victims before the start of their 2003 home opener. NASA subsequently suspended its space shuttle program for over two years after the disaster.

3: Michael J. Adams

Mike Adams became the first ever American space fatality when his life ended on November 15th, 1967. Adams was an astronaut and former air force pilot and was on his seventh space flight when the tragedy occurred. This particular space flight was a test run of the X-15 experimental craft. A few minutes into the space flight, Adams began experiencing problems with the aircraft. He radioed to ground control that he had entered a spin. Ground control was unable to rectify the situation and began preparing for an emergency landing. After some skilled maneuvering, Adams managed to recover the aircraft from the spin, but was descending very rapidly. He likely misinterpreted his instrument display and was possibly suffering from vertigo due to the spinning. Furthermore, an electrical malfunction early in the flight likely caused Adams to be distracted, which could be another reason why he lost control of the X-15. Finally, the aircraft broke apart, destroying the X-15 and in the end, killing Adams. After the crash, NASA implemented new procedures to avoid such tragedies in the future. First, they decided to screen astronauts for vertigo. Secondly, they added new instruments for the ground controllers, which allow for improved real-time monitoring of their aircraft.

2: Soyuz 1

The Soyuz 1 was launched into space on April 23rd, 1967 along with soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. The mission ended in disaster when the descent module of his space flight shuttle crashed into the earth, which was caused by his parachute refusing to open. Colonel Komarov was actually the first person to die in the history of space flight. The launch began with what was meant to be a very difficult mission. The plan involved swapping crews with the Soyuz 2 at some point before coming back to Earth. Things, however, did not go smooth from the start. It was the first manned space flight of the Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft. Additionally, unmanned test launches had not gone well at all. Three test launches had failed and engineers working on the project reported more than 200 potential design flaws. However, Soviet Leaders decided to move forward with the launch in order to honor the birthday of the former Soviet Leader, Vladimir Lenin. Furthermore, they were in the midst of an intense competition with the United States to reach the moon first, and the Soviets did not want to have any perceived space flight setbacks. Komarov himself felt the mission might be doomed even before it began. After the April 23rd launch, the Soyuz 1 experienced an array of technical difficulties once in space. It was decided that the Soyuz 2 would fix some of the problems on Soyuz 1 once it got to space, but thunderstorm prevented the space flight launch from happening. They decided to abort the mission and bring Soyuz 1 home. As it began to descend back into Earth’s atmosphere, its parachute malfunctioned. This caused the space flight module to plummet to earth too fast for a safe landing. Rescuers discovered the landing module in flames. The dead body of Komarov was discovered and an autopsy concluded that he died from multiple blunt force injuries.

1: Apollo 1

Apollo 1 was supposed to be the first manned mission of the U.S manned lunar landing program. However, a tragic accident during the training stages prevented the low Earth orbital test from taking place. On January 27th, 1967, NASA was conducting a simulation test for Apollo 1. In order for the scheduled launch on February 21st to occur on time, this simulation needed to be done successfully. During the simulation, the crew cabin caught on fire. The ground crew attempted to rescue the men, but because dense smoke and immense heat poured out of the module, it took the ground staff nearly five minutes to open the module hatches. When they finally got through, they found the crew’s dead bodies: Gus Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee. While an investigation could not conclude exactly how the fire started, several factors were noted that contributed to the increase in the fire’s severity. The pure oxygen atmosphere at high pressure made the cabin more prone to fires. Additionally, flammable material in the cabin helped the flames spread more quickly. Also, the difficulty in opening the cabin door’s hatch at a high pressure made it extremely difficult for the astronauts to escape in a timely manner. On top of all of that, emergency procedures were not adequate, as the test was considered very dangerous. Although the launch vehicle was not loaded with fuel, none of the pyrotechnic systems were activated. The three astronauts are honored on the Space Mirror Memorial along with other astronauts who have died in the line of duty. After the disaster, NASA made alteration to the Apollo program. On July 20th, 1969, Apollo 11 became the first space flight to land humans on the moon.


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