Two separate space shuttle crashes during test flights late last year provided us with a sharp reminder that even today, more than 50 years after the first man made it into space, travelling outside of the Earth’s atmosphere is still fraught with danger.
While vast resources were invested in human exploration of the solar system in the 1960s and 1970s, in part due to the space race between the United States and Soviet Union, recent years have witnessed a considerable drop in funding. The consequences of this were shown when it was revealed that in the case of one of the crashes last October, the test shuttle had been using engine parts that were manufactured in the Soviet era around 40 years ago.
But despite the risks, there remains much that scientists can learn through space travel, whether it be by piloted or unmanned spacecraft. November’s successful landing of a probe on a comet demonstrated the incredible technological capabilities that we have at our disposal. At the same time, more countries are getting involved in space exploration. China is the only country recently to have completed a mission to the moon, and India is also working on its own program.
In the future, a lot will depend on the amount of resources devoted to space travel if accidents are to be avoided. The following list includes 12 major accidents in the history of space travel.
12) Valentin Bondarenko
The first space-related fatality to ever take place did not even occur during an actual flight, but instead, it took place as part of an endurance test in a low-pressure altitude chamber. Valentin Bondarenko was to spend 15 days in the chamber, with an oxygen atmosphere of fifty percent. Bondarenko dropped an alcohol-covered cloth onto a hot plate, inflicting third degree burns across large parts of his body. Despite being taken to hospital, he died shortly afterwards.
11) Voskhod 2
Despite managing to complete the first spacewalk in history, Alexei Leonov got into real trouble when his suit malfunctioned, swelling up to a point where he was unable to reenter the spacecraft. Although he was able to release some of the pressure, he had extremely impaired movement due to the affects of the bends, a condition that usually impacts divers. The incident caused the crew to miss their reentry timetable, meaning that they landed off course by more than 300 kilometers in a forest. As if they hadn’t survived enough in space, they were compelled to stay in the capsule overnight, due to the presence of wolves and bears in the woods.
10) Apollo 1
In this tragic accident during flight training, three astronauts were killed during a grounded test of the spacecraft, in January 1967, by a fire. Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Edward White were asphyxiated and burned in the cockpit. A subsequent report into the disaster was severely critical of the use of pure oxygen in the capsule, as well as the presence of flammable velcro straps. A photo of the three praying before entering the ship that was released later, suggests that the astronauts had their own concerns prior to testing it out.
9) Soyuz 1
The first Soyuz mission launched by the Soviet Union in 1967, was virtually assured of failure before it got underway. In test flights the previous year and in the manufacturing of the ship, a huge array of problems had been faced, including issues with parachutes, environmental controls, hatches and docking systems. Reports suggest that Vladimir Komarov, the cosmonaut killed when Soyuz 1 crashed, was well aware that he was not likely to survive the mission when he took it on. Ultimately, his death was caused by the failure of Soyuz’s parachutes to open on re-entry.
8) Apollo 13
Perhaps the best known accident in space due to the 1995 film of the same name, Apollo 13 was struck by a fire in an oxygen tank on April 13th, 1970. It was determined that it had been caused by poor wiring in the spacecraft, which produced a spark when the crew sought to perform a routine procedure. As a result of the loss of power, the three-man crew of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Hayes, had to make the journey of around 200,000 miles back to Earth in a craft that had only be designed for performing a moon landing. Luckily, they returned safely to the Pacific Ocean, on April 17th.
7) Soyuz 11
When one of the Soviet Union’s most successful missions touched down on June 30th, 1970, there was no outward indication that anything was wrong. But the three crew members had suffocated to death during reentry, after spending 23 days in space. The cause of their deaths was the failure of an air vent in the craft, resulting in the cosmonauts being exposed to a vacuum. Rescuers who recovered the bodies from the spacecraft noticed that one was still warm and they attempted resuscitation, but unfortunately, this proved unsuccessful.
6) Soyuz 18A
The scheduled flight to the first space station, Salyut 4, in early April 1975, failed to make it into space when a problem with one of the rocket boosters caused the shuttle’s automated flight system to abort the flight and begin the descent back to Earth. A problem had arisen in detaching the booster from another part of the craft, resulting in it not aligning properly. Due to the sudden descent, the two crew members were exposed to extremely high gravitational force, but luckily they both survived. They were able to land in the east of Russia and were picked up by a rescue helicopter.
5) Apollo-Soyuz Test Project
While the first joint space mission between the Soviet Union and United States generally went well, disaster nearly struck for the Apollo craft during reentry. Due to the failure to shut off a switch, highly toxic nitrogen tetroxide gas was let into the capsule. One of the crew members lost consciousness and the consequences could have been much more serious, had not a second crew member quickly retrieved emergency gas masks for all three. They all made it back safely, but were confined to hospital for several weeks before they made a full recovery.
The shocking disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle on January 28th, 1986, was captured on live TV, taking place only 73 seconds after launch. Seven crew members were killed, including a teacher who was supposed to have been the first to teach lessons from space. President Reagan appointed a commission to examine the tragedy and it came to the conclusion that a rubber O-ring on one of the craft’s rocket-boosters had failed, leading to flames spreading to the fuel tank. On the morning of the launch, temperatures were extremely cold and engineers had issued warnings that some of the shuttle’s components could be adversely affected.
3) Mir EP-3
Mission commander Vladimir Lyakhov and his flight partner Abdul Ahad Mohmand, were returning to Earth after a successful mission to the Mir space station when they encountered problems with their sensors and computer software. On two separate occasions, the computer automatically aborted an attempt at reentry, because it determined that the spacecraft was not properly aligned. After Lyakhov realized that they were correctly aligned, they were forced to stay in orbit for an extra day, while ground crew re-wrote the computer’s programming to enable them to make a successful reentry and land safely.
Seven astronauts lost their lives when the shuttle Columbia broke up on reentering Earth’s atmosphere, in February 2003. The crash received immediate publicity because US television networks captured live footage of the spacecraft breaking apart in the sky. NASA investigations discovered that a piece of foam had fallen from the craft, breaching the left wing and causing gas to get into the shuttle and break it up. They were heavily criticized in the aftermath of the tragedy, since it was revealed that the issue with the foam had been known about for some time. Reports urged more funding to ensure better safety procedures.
1) VSS Enterprise
The rocket that crashed in the Mojave Desert in the US at the end of October, was taking part in a test flight for Virgin Galactic, which intends to launch the first space tourism program. Eye witnesses explained that the rocket powering the craft exploded shortly after it had been dropped from the mother ship. The crash resulted in the death of a crew member and the serious injury of another. This was the first manned flight to use a new type of plastic fuel, which had replaced an earlier type of fuel following a previous incident in 2007, that killed three people.