Space disasters remind us that, no matter how mind-blowingly cool manned spaceflight is, the risks are dramatic and often absolute. A car crash can have devastating consequences, but at least it leaves you on the ground. When something goes wrong in space, it’s just you, some metal, a whole lot of combustible fuel, and the dark, cold loneliness of space. A total of 21 people have lost their lives in the pursuit of spaceflight, and many more in training exercises and rocket launches gone awry. Still, others died because their fascination for spaceflight put them at the wrong place, at exactly the wrong time.
Spaceflight accidents typically boil down to one of three basic causes: defects, overconfidence, and management snafus, with defective design emerging as the leading cause. One example includes the faulty sealing properties of the O-rings in the infamous Shuttle Challenger. A seemingly small detail, the poorly sealed O-rings in the solid rocket booster led to one of NASA’s biggest and most tragic losses.
In other cases, a relaxed reliance on existing systems and safety measures can lead personnel to forget that those components require regular maintenance, updating, and periodic testing. Management glitches can lead any kind of project astray, especially when different departments of an agency don’t properly communicate with one another. In outer space, the stakes are higher in more ways than one.
Humankind’s earliest spaceflights include several fatal disasters, and the possibility looms again with proposed manned missions to Mars within the next few years. Yet, the allure of space travel is so potent that the prospect always finds a long list of willing candidates willing to ignore the risks. Here’s a look at the worst space disasters and near misses in human history.
15. The Nedelin Catastrophe – October 24, 1960
Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, the ambitious commander of the USSR’s Strategic Rocket Forces and the R-16 intercontinental ballistic missile development program (a crucial part of the Russian defense strategy) sped up the missile’s development timeline in time for the state’s planned celebrations of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7. Corners were cut, and the launch progressed with a known fuel leak. As someone in the command bunker was flipping a switch to correct a setting, it activated the second stage rocket engine, which blasted through a fuel tank. It caused an explosion and a colossal fireball that burned up a 395 foot diameter around the launch pad. About 250 spectators were still in the area and witnesses described a horror show of burning bodies and people running frantically to put themselves out. Some were killed by the poisonous gasses from the fuel as it burned for two hours before it could be put out. The number of dead isn’t entirely clear; there were only 49 survivors at the time, 16 of whom would die within the year. The Communist Russian regime being what it was, the incident was covered up by government officials and not discussed in the media until 1989 during Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” period of increased openness.
14. Vostok Rocket Explosion – March 18, 1980
This is yet another horror story of the Soviet era space race that only made it to international attention in 1989 with the coming of perestroika. The Vostok rocket accident was one of the most deadly ever in history and occurred during a double launch of a TV satellite and a research rocket, along with a military spy satellite. Press and media had been invited to the secluded Plesetsk Cosmodrome installation north of Moscow, a busy facility where hundreds of routine missions had been launched. The unmanned Vostok rocket used a two-stage booster system and was ready to fire on the launch pad when it exploded during fueling. Forty-five soldiers in the vicinity were killed immediately, with another five succumbing to their injuries later. The explosion ignited about 300 tons of fuel and completely destroyed the launch pad. Many others were injured in the blast, some suffering from severe burns. At the time, the official Soviet paper Pravda reported that the launch had been a success. An investigation later concluded that oxygen vapor had escaped due to operator error. Other reports, however, disputed the findings and claimed that poor quality rocket fuel filters were to blame for the leak of oxygen peroxide that caused the explosion and fire.
13. The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster – January 28, 1986
The space shuttle, Challenger, had already completed several landmark missions, including astronaut repair of a satellite, before the fateful day in January 1986 when it exploded on live television 73 seconds after liftoff. The gruesomely spectacular explosion sent pieces of the Challenger plunging into the ocean over a wide radius. The sub-zero temperatures of the January launch were blamed for causing the O-ring seals to degrade, resulting in the improper seal. It meant that overheated gases escaped, caused a cascading series of failures that resulted in the Challenger being thrown off course and into the windstream, where it broke into pieces. Investigators believe that some of the astronauts may have survived the initial break up and some tried to activate emergency oxygen supplies. There were no survivors, however, as the cockpit hit the water at 200 miles per hour. It turned out that some of the engineers and NASA personnel had concerns before the launch, but the agency’s culture hindered communication between team members. The tragedy, which resulted in the instant deaths of all seven crewmembers, stunned the public and resulted in fundamental changes to the federal space agency. Changes to both equipment, procedures, and policy were made as a result and the shuttle program resumed in 1988.
12. The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster – February 1, 2003
The space shuttle Columbia mission of January 2003 involved pure research, and all went well during the 16-day mission in space. But, while the astronauts were performing experiments, NASA ground crew were trying to investigate possible damage to the left wing from a piece of foam that fell away during launch. According to reports, there was a push within NASA to get a closer look at that wing while the shuttle was in orbit. Officials decided not to take the Department of Defense up on their offer to use spy cameras to do the job, which was a fatal mistake. As the shuttle was making its landing approach, Mission Control began to notice a series of abnormal instrument readings. As NASA tried to discuss the problem with one of the astronauts, communications were abruptly cut off. Damage to the left wing allowed gases to enter the shuttle as it re-entered the atmosphere at 18 times the speed of sound, causing super heated conditions. NASA found out about the shuttle’s whereabouts as a television network aired footage of the Columbia breaking up in the sky over Texas and Louisiana. The debris was found spread over about 2,000 square miles. It is believed that the astronauts lost consciousness as the spacecraft first began to break up and the cabin lost pressure.
11. Xichang, China Long March Rocket Launch Disaster – February 15, 1996
Xichang is a small town in remote mountain country near the borders of China with Burma and Vietnam, and the site of the worst rocket launch accident in history. NASA had banned commercial payloads as a result of the Challenger accident, forcing American satellite operators to negotiate tag-along rides on European and Chinese rockets. In February 1996, American engineers were onhand for the launch of an Intelsat-708 satellite on the untested Chinese Long March 3B rocket. The clocks ended up out of sync after minor delays, but the rocket initially seemed unaffected. However, instead of a vertical rise and then arc towards the east, the rocket burst out of the launch pad, gaining speed as it sped through the valley only a few hundred feet off the ground. After a wild 22 second flight, the rocket crashed into a hillside, setting off a series of explosions and violent shock waves. American observers at the scene claimed that hundreds of people had been gathered in a crowd to watch the launch near the area of the crash. Chinese officials claimed that they had all been evacuated in time, but there is some doubt about that, pushing the possible fatalities into the hundreds.
10. The Apollo 1 Fire – January 27, 1967
While the Apollo program makes the list a couple of times, there were actually no fatalities during Apollo space missions. Unfortunately for the three astronauts who perished on January 1967, that streak of luck didn’t extend to associated ground test missions. In a moment of terrible irony, Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee actually posed for a picture while praying outside the spacecraft before the test began. It was a pre-flight test for the very first manned Apollo space mission, and the test itself wasn’t supposed to be hazardous. Far from a routine procedure, however, fire broke out and swept through the cockpit, asphyxiating the three astronauts aboard before burning them. There was a thorough investigation after the fact, with several factors emerging as catalysts. Pure oxygen was present in the cabin, along with flammable Velcro strips. The cabin door had a hatch design that opened to the inside, effectively trapping the three astronauts as the fire spread. As the congressional investigations into the fatal accident progressed there was some talk of canceling the Apollo program before it literally got off the ground, but the decision was made to fix and improve the design and procedures instead.
9. Soyuz 11 Decompression Accident – June 30, 1971
The Soyuz 11 mission was the first manned mission to board the Salyut 1, the world’s first viable space station, a milestone the crew of three reached on June 7, 1971. The three cosmonauts spent over 23 days in orbit (another record) and their success was Russia’s answer to NASA’s first man on the moon. The spacecraft’s descent went entirely as scheduled, with the descent module separating and the parachute opening perfectly and setting the spacecraft safely on the ground. The tragedy would become clear only when rescuers opened the spacecraft to find all three cosmonauts dead as they sat on their couches. The only clues were dark blue patches on their faces and blood that streamed from their noses and ears. The official military autopsies remain classified to this day. An air vent had opened during descent, resulting in rapid decompression in the cabin. For at least eleven minutes, the unlucky three became the only human beings ever to be exposed to the vacuum of space at an altitude of over 60 miles. There was a huge public outpouring of grief, and the tragic accident led both the Russian and American space agencies to make changes, including instituting the use of spacesuits in decompression situations.
8. The Soyuz 1 Parachute Failure – April 23, 1967
In 1967, NASA’s program was set back by the Apollo 1 fire, but the lure of leading the “Space Race” may have led the Soviets to cut a few corners. There were more than 200 unresolved engineering issues with the Soyuz 1 spacecraft on the day of its very first launch. While it seemed to start well, there were troubles shortly after liftoff, including the fact that the left solar panel had not deployed, which cut the power supply in half. The faulty solar panel caused a number of other problems, including altitude control because the spacecraft was rendered asymmetrical. Neither Komarov nor the Soyuz mission engineers succeeded in being able to stabilize the spacecraft and the decision was made to bring it home. Because the faulty solar panel blocked crucial systems, Komarov had to attempt a manual system re-entry, which had to be performed during daylight hours. The lopsided Soyuz 1 drifted, but made it through atmosphere re-entry. The next issue, which was fatal, occurred when the parachute system failed to deploy. The descent module crashed into the ground at top speed, flattening the module as the fuel rockets exploded and incinerated the wreckage.
7. Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Accident – October 31, 2014
California’s Mojave Desert was the backdrop for the fatal accident during a flight test of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise. The SS2’s engine would be performing its first flight with a new propellant in a new motor that would also allow the spacecraft to fly higher than it ever had before. The new motor, however, was found perfectly intact. The initial drop from the mother ship and first rocket fire went normally. About thirteen seconds later, the spacecraft broke apart in what looked like an explosion, with the debris scattering over about a thirty mile area. The cause was determined to be the feathering system, a braking device, which deployed out of sequence. About two seconds after it was deployed, the whole spacecraft broke apart over 10 miles above the ground. Co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed and pilot, Peter Siebold, was injured but survived by unbuckling himself from his ejection seat as he tumbled through mid-air and then deploying his parachute. It’s an occasion with dual significance since it was the first time anyone has survived the disintegration of a spacecraft, and also the first American space fatality since the Columbia disaster. Virgin Galactic returned to spaceflight in August 2016.
6. Vostok 1 Training Fire – March 23, 1961
Valentin Bondarenko was just 24-years-old when he died horribly in a training exercise gone wrong. In contrast to NASA, which preferred to select mature candidates for the space program, the Soviets signed up young soldiers for the training. Bondarenko was in a training phase that involved a 15-day endurance test in a pressure chamber on a simulated run of the Vostok 1, a precursor to the Soyuz spacecraft series. He died when a fire broke out in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the pressure chamber. It’s a tragic irony, since Bondarenko’s death could have pointed the way to measures that would have saved the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts who died in a very similar oxygen-fueled fire six years later. However, news of Bondarenko’s accident was suppressed at the time, and as with most Russian space fatalities, the details weren’t released until after 1989. What’s even more tragic is that seventeen years later in 1978, another Russian cosmonaut working on the Soyuz-Salyut space station project was also badly burned in an isolation chamber accident, although he survived. The lessons took some two decades to be corrected.
5. X-15 Crash – November 15, 1967
The X-15 was a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft, the fastest manned rocket plane ever created, and a joint project of NASA and the USAF. Major Michael J. Adams was at the top of his class at flight school and November 15, 1967 was his seventh flight on the X-15. The flight began well and Adams dropped from the launch craft at 45,000 feet, eventually climbing to 266,000 feet. Then, the craft went into a deliberate wing rocking mode in order to allow an on-board camera to get a horizon view. But, the wing rocking action went overboard and the X-15 began to drift off the flight path. Adams was briefly able to correct it but about 30 seconds later, the X-15 began to descend at right angles. It entered into a Mach 5 spin at 230,000 feet. The NASA-1 control team could not monitor the flight path, and so no one had any idea of the situation until Adams radioed in. The spin came under control at 118,000 feet, and began diving at 160,000 feet per minute. At 65,000 feet, it was at Mach 3.93 and experiencing pressures over 15G vertically. The X-15 broke up and crash landed, killing Adams.
4. Titan 4 Crane Incident – September 7, 1990
Rockets don’t have to get far off the ground to become dangerous, as an accident at the Edwards Air Force base in 1990 illustrated. A crane was lifting the 30-foot motor segment of a Titan 4 rocket from a stand into a storage area in a routine procedure. Published reports claimed that an underground tunnel underneath the crane caved in and the boom with the motor segment dropped suddenly, sending 255,000 pounds of solid fuel inside the motor skidding down a hillside where it eventually ignited into a huge fire. Mushroom clouds of smoke billowed up thousands of feet into the air. One of the civilian technicians operating the crane was killed by falling counterweights, and nine other people were injured. The accident closed the nearby state highway while first responders struggled for an hour to put out the white hot blaze. It’s a special irony of the “Space Gods” that Titan 4, the largest unmanned space booster rocket in the USAF, and was designed to shift the military from its dependence on the space shuttle program with its troubled history.
3. The Soyuz T-10-1 Launch Explosion – September 26, 1983
The Soyuz T-10-1 was one of the lucky ones, and is sometimes referred to as the “almost” Russia’s Challenger. The nighttime liftoff was set to take place in what is now Kazakhstan just after 10:30 p.m, in what should have been a routine procedure. About 90 seconds before liftoff, a fuel valve failed to close, sending raw propellant spraying all over the launch pad. Within a minute it had caught on fire, and the launch crew watched in horror as, inside the spacecraft, the cosmonauts began to realize something had gone wrong. Worst of all, the fire had burned through the electronic systems which should have ejected them to safety and there was no manual override in the spacecraft. What happened next is like something out of a crazy spy movie. Two techs, in two offices 20 miles apart, had to receive a special code and press a button within 5 seconds of each other. As they did, the escape pyrotechnics fired, sending the descent module and orbital modules away from the burning booster rocket at high-G accelerations. The cosmonauts actually achieved a speed of Mach 1 in a vertical rise to about 3,000 feet. Six seconds later, the booster rocket exploded, making them two of the luckiest cosmonauts ever.
2. Apollo 13 Malfunction — April 13, 1970 (Launch April 11)
“Houston, we’ve have a problem” were the iconic words spoken by astronaut Jack Swigert as the Apollo 13 spacecraft began to lose power and oxygen pressure fell at 200,000 miles away from Earth on April 13. It was the Apollo program’s seventh manned mission and was intended to be the fourth manned moon landing. The Apollo spacecraft consisted of two modules, the orbiter or Odyssey, and the landing module called Aquarius. After what should have been a routine procedure, the Odyssey began to shudder, alarms went off, oxygen pressure fell, and the power went out. A later investigation found that exposed wires had caused a fire, damaging one oxygen tank and destroying another. Luckily for the three astronauts, the Aquarius module was still in good shape. The Aquarius was booted up and the Odyssey was powered down. But, the Aquarius had no heat shields for re-entry so they would have to guide it close to Earth while conserving power as much as possible, then switch back to Odyssey for splashdown. Ground personnel worked around the clock with astronauts to help manage both power and water. All three astronauts lost weight and one developed a kidney infection. Luckily, they were able to reboot Odyssey and splashdown safely on April 17.
1. Soyuz TM-18-1 Abort – April 5, 1975
There were no fatalities, but plenty of nail-biting drama in the aborted flight of the Soyuz 18-1 en route to the Salyut 4 space station. The first two stages of rocket fire and separation went as planned but the third stage failed to separate, although it did ignite. The spacecraft began to gyrate and the crew asked for abort procedures to be implemented. By that time, the Soyuz spacecraft was about 120 miles from Earth and fell with a force greater than 20G (about 35G is what the average human can withstand). Re-entry went safely in that the parachute deployed as it should have, however, the Soyuz landed in the Altai mountains near China and tumbled down a hillside before the parachute snagged on some bushes, just before it went down a cliff. The cosmonauts were concerned that they hadlanded in China and would be imprisoned, but were discovered by Russian locals about an hour later. One of the cosmonauts was seriously injured and never flew again. To add insult to injury, the feds tried to stiff the two crewmembers for their 3,000 ruble spaceflight bonus pay, and they had to appeal to Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union at the time, before finally receiving their due.