In an age where commercial space travel is nearly a reality and with movies like Hollywood blockbuster Gravity setting records, humans are firmly set with our eyes on the skies. However, especially given recent launch failures, we are reminded of the danger of spaceflight. To date, 19 astronauts and cosmonauts have died during flight or flight training, most from the Cold War space race between the Soviet Union and United States. Despite these and other catastrophic space disasters, space development doesn’t look as though it’ll slow down anytime soon. On today’s list, we revisit the worst space disasters in history!
LLRV No 1
Three of five Lunar Landing Research & Training vehicles (LLRV) crashed near Houston, Texas during spaceflight training missions. The first one crashed on May 6, 1968, at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas due to a loss of helium pressure controlling the jets meant to steer the vehicle down to the surface. Notably, Neil Armstrong was manning the single-seat craft but ejected safely 200 feet before the crash.
Juno II Rocket
Launched on July 16, 1959, the Juno II rocket was meant to take the Explorer S1 satellite into orbit. A few seconds after launch, the rocket performed a near 180 degree flip, hurtling back towards the launch pad head-on. The safety officer exploded the rocket to protect those at the site. From December 1958 to May 1961, five out of ten Juno II rockets malfunctioned during launch.
2013 Baikonur Launch
A Russian Proton-M rocket launching near the Kazakh city of Baikonur exploded 17 seconds after liftoff on July 2, 2013. Soon after takeoff, the rocket curved to one side and, after trying to correct itself, overcompensated and began flying horizontally before self-destructing as it began to descend. Though there were no human injuries, $200 million worth of GLONASS navigation satellites (the Russian rival to the US’s GPS) were lost. The explosion marked the latest at the time of seven failed launches (and ten satellite losses) in the year since for the Russian Federal Space Agency.
Titan IV 4A-20
Lockheed-Martin’s Titan IV-A series launch vehicle exploded partway into flight on August 12, 1998. Carrying the expensive and highly classified National Reconnaissance Office’s SIGINT (Signal Interception) satellite, a short circuit reset the craft’s guidance system. Upon pitching forward, one of the solid rocket boosters broke loose and self-destructed, soon followed by the main vehicle.
Soviet Dogs in Space
The history of animal travel in space has led to major safety advancements for humans. However, they were not without their problems. Russians chose to use dogs instead of monkey as they were believed to be less fidgety during flight. The first two canine cosmonauts (Dezik an Tsygan) entered space on August 15, 1951 and returned successfully. The following mission, with Dezik and Lisa, was not so successful. For the third launch, one of the canine cosmonauts, Smelaya, ran away the day before the launch. She returned a day later in time for the flight, luckily not having been eaten by nearby wolves.
Four seconds after launch on December 12, 1959, the Titan I rocket didn’t make it off its Cape Canaveral launchpad. The rocket fell back on the pad and exploded. A vibration on the pad led the safety system to set off the destruct sequence before takeoff. Though no one was injured, the footage is commonly used in space documentaries.
Modern-day space launches are beginning to focus more on sea launches, meant to launch from the equator where the Earth’s rotation can best be used to send rockets into space. A Zenith-3SL rocket carrying US-made Intelsat-27 crashed into the surrounding ocean a few seconds after takeoff from the floating platform. Intelsat is an intergovernmental consortium controlling communication satellites. Further sea launches were backed up due to the February 1, 2013, failure.
The United States’ first shot at launching a satellite into Earth’s orbit failed when the rocket lost thrust only 4 feet (1.2 m) above its launch pad on December 6, 1957. Falling back to the launch pad, its fuel tanks ruptured and created a massive fireball, damaging the launch pad and destroying the rocket. A U.S. Navy project to combat the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik two months prior, the rocket possibly exploded due to a lack of pressure in the fuel system which allowed burning fuel to return to the engine. Due to limited data measurement methods in the early days, though, the cause was never fully determined.
In the biggest on-pad explosion Cape Canaveral has seen, the Atlas Centaur 5 exploded on March 2, 1965. A fuel valve closed causing the booster engines to lose upward thrust two seconds after liftoff and the rocket to fall on the launch base, creating a 200 foot high fireball. The launch pad was inoperational for a year following the incident.
One of the most costly launch failures in U.S. history, Titan 34D-9’s April 18, 1986, explosion reinforced the dangers of space exploration to the American people, coming just months after Challenger break-up. The explosion was attributed to joint failure holding its boosters together. The rocket carried the billion-dollar US reconnaissance satellite KH-9 HEXAGON. The major force of US photo reconnaissance in the 1970’s and 80’s, the satellites were largely used in Cold War surveillance. Cleaning up the remnants were difficult and dangerous due to Titan 34D’s use of highly poisonous hypergolic propellants.
The first of two space disasters within a week, private spaceflight company Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket experienced a “catastrophic anomaly” at the beginning of a supply mission to the International Space Station. The third of eight resupply missions of their $1.9 billion contract with NASA, the rocket (Antares) and spacecraft (Cygnus) were detonated within half minute of launching. The rocket’s first stage used 2 Aerojet AJ26 rocket engines, originally developed by the Soviets in the 1970’s to carry cosmonauts to the moon. The Soviets never successfully launched the rockets.
1997 Delta II Launch
In one of the most spectacular rocket explosions in history, Delta II exploded 13 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral. The January 17, 1997 launch was meant to launch a $40 million military GPS satellite into orbit. A ruptured SRM casing set off the range safety destruct package and a booster exploded. In what looked like an aerial repeater firework display, fireballs rained down on the surrounding area. No one was hurt, but several cars and buildings were damaged. The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978 and most launches of the Delta II rockets have been successful.
Intelsat 708 is unique in that it was an American rocket launched from Xichang in the People’s Republic of China. The rocket, launched February 14, 1996, rose before curving off to the side and crashing into a nearby village almost a mile away with most of its fuel and propellant still on board. The resulting explosion turned 3AM into high noon with the light coming from the blast. Reports of the amount of dead people (mostly local villagers) vary from a few to a few hundred. Some say the damage could have been lessened had the emergency destruct sequence been activated to destroy the rocket in flight.
The October 24, 1960 launch pad explosion of a Soviet R-16 rocket (an ICBM) is the most deadly space-related incident to date. While testing before launch, the rocket’s second stage engines ignited, incinerating 72 workers nearby and burning the road in front of them, preventing others from getting out the locked fence before they burned. Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded it be kept secret. The R-16’s designer, Mikhail Yangel, survived because he was a few hundred yards away smoking a cigarette at the time.
After fruit flies successfully paved the way for animals in space, Albert II (a male rhesus monkey) was the first primate sent into space. Successfully making it to 83 miles (134 km) above the Earth’s surface on June 4 ,1949, Albert II tragically died when the parachute on his recovery capsule failed upon re-entry. (He was preceded by Albert I who failed to attain the international standard of height for being in space. Albert I did not survive the launch.)
The first human in space was also a victim of a training jet crash. Yuri Gagarin died on March 27, 1968, along with his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin when their MiG-15UTI plane crashed. Though much speculation and conspiracy surrounds their deaths, documents declassified in April 2011 include a 1968’s commission conclusion that they had to maneuver sharply to avoid a weather balloon. A KGB report concluded the aircraft entered a spin to avoid a bird strike or another aircraft which it could not come out from. Every April 12th, Yuri’s night is celebrated internationally to commemorate space milestones & boost public interest in space exploration.
X-15 Flight 191
Though not considered a spaceflight under the internationally accepted definition, the breakup of Michael J. Adams’s plane on November 15, 1967, led to his death. Electrical and control problems caused Adams to lose control of the craft during re-entry from its highest point (50.4 miles, 81.1 kilometers). Though he recovered, the plane went into a Mach 4.7 inverted dive full of pitching and rolling motions. Plummeting downwards at 160,000 feet per minute, the plane’s structure broke up over the Mojave Desert near the town of Johannesburg. There was no indication Adams tried to eject from the plane but rather tried regaining control before the plane crashed. He was posthumously given astronaut wings by the U.S. Air Force as he crossed the American definition of space at 50 miles.
Valentin Bondarenko, Soviet cosmonaut, died on March 23, 1961, as the first space-related fatality. Bondarenko accidentally dropped an alcohol-soaked cotton ball onto an electric hotplate he was using to brew tea while training in a high-oxygen, low-pressure chamber. The cotton ball quickly ignited along with the oxygen in the surrounding atmosphere. Though a monitoring doctor pulled him out (after nearly a thirty minute delay to pressurize), Bondarenko later died in hospital from severe third-degree burns. His death was covered up by the Soviet government to those in the West until nearly twenty years later. Lessons learned from his death may have prevented Apollo 1’s fire.
During a training jet run, American pilots Elliot See and Charles Bassett died on February 28, 1966, when their Northrop T-38 Talon crashed in St. Louis, Missouri. Poor visibility led to an initial overshooting of the runway. Pilot See changed to a visual circling approach, using instruments to bring the craft down. After dropping too quickly and too far from the runway, See activated the afterburner to boost power. He pulled the plane right where it struck the room of McDonnell Building 101 before cartwheeling and crashing into a nearby parking lot. Ironically, See and Bassett died 500 feet (150 meters) from the Gemini 9 craft which would transport them into space.
NASA’s first space disaster came on January 27, 1967, while testing its would-be first manned mission. While participating in a training experience, three crewmembers – Edward H. White II, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, & Roger B. Chaffee – died when a fire erupted inside the command module. The use of pure oxygen in the cabin and an inward-opening hatch were two primary reasons for the disaster. This incident, the first fatal accident for NASA, led the agency to shutdown the Apollo moon program for 18 months and make serious changes to increase safety.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two
On SpaceShipTwo’s 55th test flight, the craft separated as planned from its carrier, WhiteKnightTwo. The craft was taking off from the Mojave Air and Spaceport the morning of October 31, 2014. Nine seconds into a textbook perfect flight, the craft’s twin tail booms (which act as a brakes on descent) unexpectedly deployed. The rocket continued to accelerate as planned and the combination of acceleration & drag from the booms led to the craft breaking up over the Mojave Desert. One of two pilots, Peter Siebold, survived the crash while the other, Michael Alsbury, did not. The National Transportation & Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the incident.
Vladimir Komarov (a close friend of Yuri Gagarin) commanded April 2, 1967’s Soyuz 1 mission. After a successful stay in space, Soyuz 1 reentered the atmosphere. When its parachutes failed to deploy, the impact led to his death, the first human space fatality. (Some reports say Gagarin tried to take Komarov’s place in a last minute attempt for what some purport was a mission doomed to fail. However, much skepticism surrounds this theory.)
Three Soviet cosmonauts, Viktor Patsayev, Georgi Dobrovolsky, and Vladislav Volkov, perished upon their capsule’s return to Earth on June 30, 1971. After successfully docking with Soviet space station Salyut 1 in the three weeks prior, the team’s re-entry and descent appeared normal. However, when rescue teams reached the capsule, they shockingly found the cosmonauts dead. A valve had opened in space, leading to rapid depressurization and asphyxiation. The craft’s autopilot re-entry system allowed the craft to return normally. These deaths are considered the first and only human space deaths as all other fatalities occurred within Earth’s atmosphere.
Space Shuttle Columbia
Space Shuttle Columbia’s seven-person crew, composed of Rick Husband,William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla,Michael Anderson, and Ilan Ramon (the one non-American on the crew; he was Israeli), died during re-entry on February 1, 2003. Returning from a 16-day research mission in Earth’s orbit, the craft disintegrated over northern Texas. The fault was linked to a piece of foam from the fuel tank’s insulation which fell off during takeoff, hitting the shuttle’s left wing and damaging its thermal protection system (the system to protect from burning temperatures caused by friction from re-entry). The resulting hole led to internal damage from hot gas penetrating the craft. The explosion led U.S. President George W. Bush to retire the space shuttle program the following year.
Space Shuttle Challenger
The first of two NASA shuttle disasters and the first U.S. space flight with in-flight fatalities, the Challenger’s seven-astronaut crew died on January 28, 1986. The seven – Sharon “Christa” McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, and Ellison Onizuka – died when the shuttle exploded 1 minute 13 seconds seconds into launch. Challenger’s 10th launch, the explosion was caused by failing o-ring seals in the right solid-rocket booster, releasing hot gases and causing it to rupture. The astronauts may have survived the explosion but would not have survived when the mostly intact cockpit slammed into the ocean at 200 mph (320 kph). Half of the craft’s remains have yet to be recovered and occasionally wash ashore.