Is there any human undertaking quite so extraordinary as space exploration? Less than a century ago the very idea was pure science fiction; centuries earlier the idea basically didn't exist. A successful space mission has always held a certain poetic beauty about it, as the realization of a species-dream.
Space missions also represent far more than we tend to realize in this technological age. It’s said that humanity, with all its sophistication and progress, longs to play God. Nowhere is this more apparent than a billion-dollar vessel plunging through the inhuman stress of the earth’s atmosphere at 22 times the speed of sound; if the machine can sustain the enormous pressure seemingly designed to keep it forever home-bound, the adventurers inside are rewarded with the serene, soundless infinity of space, kept afloat by the calm and weightless pull of our home planet’s orbit. It’s a metaphor for a life's personal journey, and the collective journey humankind takes in its little corner of the cosmos.
But as we concentrate humankind’s scientific, creative and cooperative potential on space, these missions amount to far more than the sum of their parts. To the world, a failed space mission feels like—indeed is—a failed project of our collective genius. On one hand it means the crushing loss of resources, time and manpower. But it also means the critical loss of faith, boldness and spirit.
But despite all the failures, human resilience prevails. Space programs might not be the most stably funded nowadays, and certainly not as “pressing” as a host of other things the human race should be doing. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for dreaming in between figuring out how to keep Greenland frozen, though. After all, we might have to look to outer space when our abuse of the earth's resources finally force us to vacate our planet, Wall:E style.
And this year, space geeks have cause to rejoice: NASA’s 2014 budget isn’t quite as skin-and-bones as last year. Projects like Orion—the manned spacecraft with asteroid, moon and mars-landing capabilities—are safe for the foreseeable future. Let’s hope it doesn’t end up like any of these 5 space disasters, ranked by their cost in inflation-adjusted US dollars rounded to the nearest million or billion:
5 Glory plunges into the Pacific, 2011: $439 million
If Glory succeeded it would've been a real landmark project for both space and the environment. NASA built the $439 million dollar satellite to collect data on the spread of sulfates and aerosols — light absorbing particles which cool the atmosphere — and the relative power of sunlight to assess their effects on long-term climate. Its state-of-the-art cameras, sensors and monitors would've made it one of the most comprehensive tools for research into atmospheric composition, energy cycles and macroclimate to date.
Unfortunately, 3 minutes into Glory’s lift-off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the payload fairing failed to detach. Still wearing its protective nose cone, the satellite remained too heavy to reach proper orbit, and fell to pieces over the Pacific Ocean - $439 million worth of pieces.
4 OAO-B fails to break the atmosphere, 1970: $583 million
Between 1966 and 1972 NASA sent a series of four orbiting telescopes to form the would-be landmark Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. Unfortunately the first and third units failed, and the trailblazing “observatory” ended up operating at half-capacity. The third unit, OAO-B, happened to be carrying the most complex and expensive telescope ever built at the time, and when the carrier rocket failed to let go after four minutes, it took the $583 million 38-inch ultraviolet telescope down with it.
Luckily, OAO-2 and OAO-3 Copernicus stuck around long enough to provide the world with high-res spectra of hundreds of star systems, and the discovery of several pulsars. Even without its two fallen brothers, the OAO managed to set a vital precedent for NASA’s orbiting telescope programs.
3 Salyut 2 dies young, 1973: $2.6 billion
The Soviet space program remains a bit of a paradox in the history books. For a brief time it seemed the Union — who lost the moon race, but did establish the first orbiting satellite and space station — had achieved space parity with the US. But over the years, secrecy, failures and a few borderline-conspiracy theories caused international doubts about the program’s capabilities. Regardless, we’re not here to talk about the fallen cosmonauts supposedly wiped clean from the record; this is about the space station that gave in before they could break it in.
Salyut 1, launched 1971, was the world’s first manned space station and hosted a crew that set the record for spending the longest time in space. Other than the fact that the whole crew suffocated on re-entry, the Salyut program seemed promising. Two years later, the Soviets successfully put the $2.6 billion dollar Salyut 2 into low orbit, without realizing its third-stage Proton-K rocket had burned a hole into the station. At thirteen days old the station was losing pressure; over the next month its orbit failed, and $2.6 billion slowly decayed through the earth's atmosphere.
2 Challenger bursts in 73 Seconds, 1986: $11.5 billion
On the morning of January 28, 1986, as the world eagerly awaited the live broadcast of the space shuttle Challenger preparing for lift-off from Cape Canaveral, a small group of NASA officials were panicking. It had been a long, cold night and icicles had formed under the launch pad. The morning seemed more inviting under the January sun, but NASA had never attempted a shuttle launch under temperatures that low, and after several postponements throughout the week, the pressure was on.
At 11:00 a.m., dispatch told the strapped-in crew the launch was a go. No one knew, however, that the cold had rendered an O-ring on the right rocket booster too brittle to contain the fire. Within 73 seconds, the rocket melted a support beam and torpedoed into the fuel tank. Mission Control heard Pilot Mike Smith utter his last words—“uh oh”—and then static.
While the $11.5 billion shuttle disappeared in a plume of smoke, the crew cabin ejected and plunged 50,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean at 333 km/h. All seven crew members were found strapped into their seats, but none survived.
1 Columbia fails to make it home, 2003: $16.4 billion
It'd been an unforgettable 16 days for the seven aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Working 24 hours in shifts, the research team collected some 80-experiments-worth of findings in material sciences, life sciences and fluid physics from the vacuum of space. From the ground, NASA had been assessing some minor damage from a piece of foam insulation that broke off and struck Columbia’s left wing after launch. Some had their concerns, but it wasn’t the first time they'd seen some minor foam damage. When the Department of Defense offered to lend NASA its in-orbit spy cameras to take a better look, NASA declined.
Homecoming was the 1st of February. As the shuttle broke the atmosphere, the crew passed around a video camera and filmed the display of plasma and reentry flames outside their window. As the orbiter went inbound for Kennedy Space Center just before 9 a.m., Mission Control lost their left wing temperature readings. Then they lost left tire pressure readings.
As Columbia hurtled over Dallas, atmospheric pressures dissected the shuttle from the left wing to the main chambers and strew its contents across the sky. The foam had punctured the wing; Challenger became a $16.4 billion firework.
Debris was recovered over the course of weeks and 2,000 square miles: Some 84,000 fragments, and the DNA-identified remains of the ill-fated crew.