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List of space disasters
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List of space disasters

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Table of contents
1 Fatalities
2 Ground crew fatalities
3 See also
4 External links


The history of space exploration has been marred by a number of tragedies that resulted in the deaths of the astronauts or ground crew. As of 2003, in-flight accidents had killed 18 astronauts, training accidents had claimed at least 11 astronauts and launch pad accidents had killed at least 70 ground crew.

There has not been any in-flight natural death and only the crew of Soyuz 11 died while in space.

In-flight accidents

There have been five fatal in-flight accidents. In each case all crew were killed.

The first was on April 24 1967 when Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed on board Soyuz 1. His one-day mission had been plagued by a series of mishaps with the new type of spacecraft, which culminated in the capsule's parachute not opening properly after re-entry. Komarov was killed when the capsule hit the ground. There are persistent rumors that Americann listening posts in Turkey recorded Komarov cursing the spacecraft and the support crew by radio on his way down, although in the absence of any evidence, these claims are usually dismissed as myth.

Michael J. Adams died while piloting a suborbital spaceflight in a rocket-plane. Major Adams was a U.S. Air Force pilot in the NASA/USAF X-15 program. On 15 November 1967, on his seventh flight, the plane first had an electrical problem and then developed control problems at the apogee of its flight. The pilot may also have become disoriented. During reentry from a 50.38 mile (81 km) apogee, the X-15 yawed sideways out of control and went into a spin at a speed of Mach-5, from which the pilot never recovered. Excessive acceleration led to the break up of the X-15 while in flight at about 65,000 feet (19.8 km). Adams was posthumously awarded astronaut wings as his flight had passed an altitude of 50 miles (80 km).

Four years later, on June 30, 1971, the crew of Soyuz 11, Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov were killed after un-docking from space station Salyut 1 after a three-week stay. A valve on their spacecraft had accidentally opened, allowing their air to leak out into space. The capsule re-entered and landed normally, and their deaths were only discovered when it was opened by the recovery team.

The first US in-flight fatalities came on January 28 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after launch. Analysis of the accident showed that a faulty seal O-ring had allowed hot gases from one of the shuttle's booster rockets to weaken the mounting that held the booster to the shuttle's large external fuel tank. When the mounting failed, the top of the booster rocket struck the fuel tank and ruptured it. Challenger was torn apart in mid-air with the loss of all seven crew members aboard- Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, and Dick Scobee.

A second shuttle, Columbia, was lost on February 1 2003 as she re-entered after a two-week mission. Damage to the shuttle's thermal protection tiles led to structural failure in the shuttle's left wing and, ultimately, the spacecraft breaking apart. Investigations after the tragedy revealed that the damage to the tiles had resulted from an incident during launch where a piece of insulation foam had broken away from the external fuel tank and hit the underside of the shuttle's wing. Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon were killed.

Training accidents

In addition to accidents on actual spaceflights, astronauts have been killed while in training.

On March 23, 1961, Valentin Bondarenko became the first space-related casualty of all while undergoing training in a special low-pressure chamber with a pure oxygen atmosphere. Bondarenko accidentally dropped an alcohol-soaked cloth onto an electric hotplate. In the pure oxygen environment, the fire quickly engulfed the entire chamber. Bondarenko was barely alive when the chamber was opened, and died of his burns in hospital a short time later.

On October 31, 1964, Theodore Freeman was killed when a goose was pulled into the engine of his T-38 jet trainer. Freeman ejected from the stricken aircraft, but was too close to the ground for his parachute to open properly.

The Gemini 9 crew, Elliott See and Charles Bassett were killed whilst attempting to land their T-38 in bad weather on 28 February, 1966. See misjudged his approach, and crashed into the McDonnell aircraft factory.

Another fire claimed the lives of the Apollo 1 crew as they trained in their capsule on January 27 1967. An electrical fault sparked the blaze that again spread quickly in a pure oxygen atmosphere, killing Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. At the time of the accident, Bondarenko's death had been covered up by the Soviet government and was not known about in the US. If only it had been, perhaps the dangers of equipping spacecraft with pure oxygen atmospheres would have been more fully appreciated and the tragedy averted. Many materials become practically low explosives in pure oxygen; modern spacecraft use mixtures of continiously-replaced oxygen with nitrogen.

In yet another T-38 crash, Clifton Williams was killed on October 5 1967 after a mechanical failure caused his controls to stop responding. He had been assigned to the back-up crew for what would be the Apollo 9 mission and would have most likely been assigned as Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 12. The Apollo 12 mission patch has four stars on it - one each for the three astronauts who flew the mission, and one for Williams.

Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr was named the first African-American astronaut for the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but he never made it into space. On 8 December 1967, Lawrence died when his F-104 Starfighter jet crashed at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

First man in space Yuri Gagarin was similarly killed on March 27, 1968 when his MiG-15 jet trainer crashed while he prepared for the Soyuz 3 mission.

Near misses

Apart from actual disasters, a number of missions resulted in some very near misses and also some trainging accidents that nearly resulted in deaths.

Inflight near missses have included various re-entry mishaps (in particular on Soyuz 5), the sinking of the Mercury 4 capsule, and the Voskhod 2 crew spending a night in dense forest surrounded by wolves. Additionally:

During the flight of Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, after retrofire, the Vostok service module unexpectedly remained attached to the reentry module by a bundle of wires. The two halves of the craft were suppose to separate ten seconds after retrofire. But they did not separate until 10 minutes after retrofire, when the wire bundle finally burned through. The spacecraft had gone through wild gyrations at the beginning of reentry, before the wires burned through and the reentry module settled into the proper reentry attitude.

The Gemini 8 crew narrowly averted disaster on March 17 1966 after a maneuvering thruster would not shut down and put their capsule into an uncontrolled spin.

Three of the five Lunar Landing Research and Training vehicles (LLRV & LLTV) were destroyed in crashes near Houston, Texas. LLRV No. 1 crashed on May 6, 1968 at Ellington AFB, Texas, Neil Armstrong was flying the craft at the time and had to eject. LLTV No. 1 crashed on December 8, 1968 at Ellington AFB, Texas causing MSC test pilot Joseph Algranti to eject. Another LLTV crashed at Ellington AFB, Texas in January 1971. NASA test pilot Stuart Present ejected safely.

The rocket that launched Apollo 12 on November 14 1969 was struck by lightning shortly after lift-off. All on-board systems were temporarily disabled.

In the most celebrated "near miss", the Apollo 13 crew came home safely after an explosion on April 14, 1970 crippled their spacecraft en route to the moon. They survived the loss of most of their spacecraft systems by relying on the Lunar Module to provide life-support and power for the trip home.

Apollo 13 also had a close call during launch that almost resulted in a launch abort. It was overshadowed by later events. The second-stage center-engine experienced violent POGO oscillations that luckily caused it to shut down early. The two-ton engine, solidly bolted to its massive thrust frame, was bouncing up and down at 68g. This was flexing the frame 3 inches at 16-Hz! After three seconds of these POGO oscillations the engine's "low chamber pressure" switch was tripped. The switch had not been designed to trip in this manner, but luckily it did. This led to the engines automatic shutdown. If the POGO had continuted, it could have torn the Saturn V apart.

On January 18 1969 the Soyuz 5 had a harrowing reentry and landing when the capsule's service module initially refused to separate, causing the spacecraft to begin reentry faced the wrong way. The service module broke away before the capsule was destroyed, however, and it made a rough but survivable landing far off course in the Ural mountains.

On January 23, 1971, Gene Cernan was flying a helicopter as part of his Lunar Module training as Backup Commander for Apollo 14. The helicopter crashed into the Banana River at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Cernan nearly drowned because he was not wearing a life vest and received some second degree burns on his face and singed hair. According to official reports at the time, the crash was the result of mechanical failure. Later accounts, written by Cernan himself in an autobiography admit he was flying too low and showing off for nearby boaters. The helicopter dipped a skid into the water and crashed. James McDivitt, an Apollo Manager at the time, demanded that Cernan be removed from flight status and not be given Command of Apollo 17. He was defended by Deke Slayton and given the Apollo 17 command. James McDivitt resigned as an Apollo Manager shortly after the Apollo 16 mission.

On April 5 1975, the Soyuz 18a mission nearly ended in disaster when the rocket malfunctioned during launch. The Soyuz's escape system pulled the capsule clear, but subjected the crew to an extremely rough return to earth.

During final descent and parachute deployment for the ASTP Command Module on July 24, 1975, the U.S. crew were exposed to 300-parts-per-million of toxic nitrogen tetroxide gas (RCS fuel) venting from the spacecraft and re-entering a cabin air intake. A switch was left in the wrong position. 400-parts-per-million is fatal. Vance Brand became unconscious. The crew members suffered from burning sensations of their eyes, faces, noses, throats and lungs. Thomas Stafford quickly broke out emergency oxygen masks and put one on Brand and gave one to Deke Slayton. The crew were exposed to the toxic gas from 24,000 ft (7.3 km) down to landing. About an hour after landing the crew developed chemical-induced pneumonia and their lungs had edema. They experienced shortness of breath and were hospitalized in Hawaii. The crew spent two weeks in the hospital. By July 30, their chest x-rays appeared to return to normal.

On October 16 1976, the Soyuz 23 capsule broke through the surface of a frozen lake and was dragged underwater by its parachute. The crew was saved after a very difficult rescue operation.

Another Soyuz crew was saved by their escape system on 26 September 1983, when the rocket that was to carry their Soyuz T-10-1 mission into space caught fire on the launch pad.

On September 5, 1988, Soyuz TM-5 cosmonauts Alexandr Lyakhov and Abdul Ahad Mohmand (from Afghanistan) undocked from Mir. They jettisoned the orbital module and got ready for the deorbit burn. The deorbit burn did not occur because the infrared horizon sensor could not confirm proper attitude. Seven minutes later, the correct attitude was achieved. The main engine fired, but Lyakhov shut it down after 3 sec to prevent a landing overshoot. A second firing 3 hr later lasted only 6 sec. Lyakhov immediately attempted to manually deorbit the craft, but the computer shut down the engine after 60 sec. After three attempts at retrofire, the cosmonauts were forced to remain in orbit a further day, until they came into alignment with the targeted landing site again. Even if they had enough fuel to do so, they would not have been able to redock with Mir, because they had discarded the docking system along with the orbital module. The cosmonauts were left for a day in the cramped quarters of the descent module with minimal food and water and no sanitary facilities. Reentry occurred as normal on September 7, 1988.

On the Mir space station on June 25, 1997, during a re-docking test with the Progress-M 34 cargo freighter, the Progress collided with the Spektr module and solar arrays of the Mir space station. This damaged the solar arrays and the collision punctured a hole in Spektr module and caused it to depressurize. The entire space station was in danger of depressurizing. The on-board crew of two Russians and one visiting NASA astronaut were able close off the Spektr module from the rest of Mir after quickly cutting cables and hoses blocking hatch closure.

Other Accidents

Various accidents have also occurred aboard space stations, most notably a depressurisation that occurred aboard Mir on June 25 1997 when a Progress freighter collided with the station. There was also a fire on board Mir on February 23 of the same year.

Ground crew fatalities

Many spacecraft and their boosters have been destroyed in accidents on launch pads.

During the building of Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, there were two deaths. On July 2, 1964, Oscar Simmons, an employee of American Bridge and Iron Company, died in an accidental fall from the 46th level of the VAB. On August 3, 1965, lightning killed Albert J. Treib on pad B of launch complex 39. - Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations - NASA SP-4204

An fatal accident occured while technicians worked on the Orbiting Solar Observatory on April 14, 1964. In an assembly room at Cape Canaveral, Delta rocket's third stage motor had just been mated to the spacecraft in preparation for some prelaunch tests. Suddenly the rocket ignited, filling the workroom with searing hot gases, burning 11 engineers and technicians, 3 of them fatally. An investigation following the accident showed that a spark of static electricity had probably set off the fuze that ignited the solid propellant. NASA - Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science SP-4211

Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia has had two fatal accidents involving ground crew members. The first one which occurred on June 26, 1973, when nine technicians were killed in a launch pad accident. A second on March 18, 1980, when 50 technicians were killed by an explosion while fueling a Soyuz booster.

On March 18, 1980 a Vostok rocket exploded on its launch pad during a fueling operation killing 48 people.

On March 19, 1981 during preparations for STS-1, at the end of the 33 hour long Shuttle Dry Countdown Demonstration Test, Columbia's aft engine compartment was under a nitrogen purge to prevent the buildup of oxygen and hydrogen gases from the propulsion system. Six technicians entered the aft engine compartment and five of the six lost consciousness due to the lack of oxygen in the compartment. Two died. John Gerald Bjornstad, a 50 year old Rockwell employee, was pronounced dead at the scene and Forrest Cole was brought to the hospital where he later died. The other four workman were treated and released.

On May 5, 1995 the European Space Agency (ESA) lost two workers in a fatal accident at the Kourou Space Centre, Guiana, at the Ariane 5-launch facility. Mr. Luc Celle and Mr. Jean-Claude Dhainaut, lost their lives during an inspection in the umbilical mast of the launch pad. A later report said, "...the cause of death was asphyxiation through inhalation of air having an excessively low oxygen content; the reduced oxygen content was due to a major nitrogen leak into the confined structure of the umbilical mast on the launch table; the nitrogen leak originated in a nitrogen/iced water exchanger, whose drainage plug was found to be missing."

On February 15, 1996, a Long March 3B rocket veered off course two seconds after take-off from Xichang space center, crashing into a nearby village. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that 80 homes had been damaged with six people killed and 57 injured, but unofficial reports and videotape from people who visited the scene suggested much greater devastation and a significantly higher death toll.

On October 1, 2001, Boeing worker Bill Brooks was killed in an industrial accident at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 37. He was a crane operator ivolved in construction of the new Delta IV launch complex. The Delta IV launch site is being built at the location of the old Saturn IB launch complex.

On October 15, 2002, a Soyuz rocket exploded 29 seconds after liftoff from Plesetsk, killing one soldier on the ground and injuring eight others. The explosion killed 20-year-old soldier Ivan Marchenko. A spokesman said that there were eight other soldiers wounded by the blast. Four of them were hospitalized. They were about one kilometer from the explosion. Rocket fragments fell in the woods in the same area.

On August 22, 2003 an unmanned rocket set to carry two satellites into orbit exploded on its launchpad in Brazil killing 21 technicians. See Brazilian rocket explosion.

Other Accidents

On October 24, 1960 a rocket exploded on a Soviet launchpad killing 126 people in what is known in the West as the Nedelin catastrophe. While once thought to have been space-related (based on the little information available outside the Soviet Union) it later emerged that the accident was connected with the development of a new ICBM.

Claims are made that several other Russian ground crew died in other accidents.

See also

External links