List of space disasters

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Test pilot Stuart Present ejects safely from the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle. (NASA)

 crash site.
Soyuz 1 crash site.


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 2004, 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.

Only the crew of Soyuz 11 died while in space.

About 2% of the manned launch/reentry attempts have killed their crew. Both Soyuz and the Shuttle have approximately similar death rates. (Except for X-15, which is suborbital, other launchers have not launched sufficiently often for reasonable safety comparisons to be made- for example it seems likely that Apollo would have eventually had a fatality had the program continued to the present day.)

About 4-5% of the people that have been launched have died doing so (because astronauts often launch more than once.) As of November 2004, 439 individuals have flown on spaceflights. (Russia/Soviet Union (96), USA (277), others (66). Twenty-two have died while in a spacecraft (Apollo 1 (3), Soyuz 1 (1), X-15-3 (1), Soyuz 11 (3), Challenger (7), Columbia (7)).

If Apollo 1 and X-15-3 are included as spaceflights, 5% (or 22) of the 439 have died on spaceflights. This includes Roger Chaffee (who never flew in space) and Michael J. Adams (who reached space by the U.S. definition, but not the international definition, see below) in the spaceflight total and Grissom, White, Chaffee (the crew of Apollo 1) and Adams in the killed total.

If Apollo 1 and the X-15-3 are excluded; 4% (or 18) of the 437 have died while on a spaceflight. This excludes Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Michael Adams from the killed total and Chaffee and Adams from the spaceflight total.

The Soyuz system is often considered to be less reliable than the Shuttle, but the overall safety appears to be the same. Although there have been some lucky escapes, no deaths have occurred since 1971, and none with the current design of the Soyuz. Including the early Soyuz design, the average deaths per launched crew member on Soyuz are currently under 2%. However, there have been several injuries as we shall see.

In-flight accidents

Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crewmembers
Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crewmembers

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 American 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 sub-orbital spaceflight in a rocket plane. Major Adams was a U.S. Air Force pilot in the NASA/USAF X-15 program. During X-15 Flight 191, 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 266,000 ft (50.4 mile, 81.1 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 (80.5 km) (the US definition of space); however, it can be disputed if the incident technically counts as a "spaceflight accident" given that the flight fell short of the internationally recognized 100 km boundary of space.

Four years later, on June 30, 1971, the crew of Soyuz 11, Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov were killed after undocking 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.

Missing image
Columbia debris falling over Texas

The first US in-flight fatalities came on January 28 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after launch on STS-51-L. 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. Some researchers suggest that they may have survived the initial explosion, but whilst probably unconscious from anoxia, were killed when the largely intact cockpit hit the water at 200 mph (90 m/s).

A second shuttle, Columbia, was lost on February 1 2003 as it re-entered after a two-week mission, STS-107. 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. (See Space Shuttle Columbia disaster)

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 time 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. 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. Many materials become explosively flammable in pure oxygen; modern spacecraft use mixtures of continuously replaced oxygen with nitrogen. It has been speculated that knowledge of Bondarenko's death might have led to changes that would have prevented the Apollo 1 fire.

On October 31, 1964, Theodore Freeman was killed when a goose was sucked 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.

A 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.

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 training accidents that nearly resulted in deaths.

Inflight near misses 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 supposed 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.

On August 29, 1965, Gemini 5 landed 130 kilometers short of its planned Pacific Ocean landing point due to a software error. The Earth's rotation rate had been programmed as one revolution per solar day instead of the correct value, one revolution per sidereal day.

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 safely. Another LLTV crashed at Ellington AFB, Texas on January 29, 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 68 g. This was flexing the frame 3 inches (76 mm) 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 continued, 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 suffered a 2nd stage separation failure during launch. This also caused an attitude error that caused the vehicle to accelerate towards the Earth and triggered an emergency reentry sequence. Due to the downward acceleration the crew experienced an acceleration of 21.3g, rather than the nominal 15g for an abort. Upon landing, the vehicle rolled down a hill, and stopped just short of a high cliff. The crew survived, but Lazarev, the mission commander, suffered internal injuries due to the severe G-forces and was never able to fly again.

During final descent and parachute deployment for the ASTP Command Module on July 24, 1975, the U.S. crew were exposed to 300 µL/L 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 µL/L 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 seconds to prevent a landing overshoot. A second firing 3 hours later lasted only 6 seconds. Lyakhov immediately attempted to manually deorbit the craft, but the computer shut down the engine after 60 seconds. 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.

There was a fire on board the Mir space station on February 23, 1997, when a lithium perchlorate canister used to generate oxygen leaked. The fire was extinguished after about 90 seconds, but smoke did not clear for several minutes.

Also at Mir 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 the space station began depressurizing. The on-board crew of two Russians and one visiting NASA astronaut were able to close off the Spektr module from the rest of Mir after quickly cutting cables and hoses blocking hatch closure.

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 (

A fatal accident occurred 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 fuse 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 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 workmen 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 involved 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 carrying a science payload began disintegrating twenty seconds after launch from Plesetsk, exploded nine seconds later and showered debris around the launch site. The explosion killed 20 year old soldier Ivan Marchenko, who had been watching the launch from behind a large glass window in a processing facility a kilometre from the launch pad. Eight other soldiers who were with Marchenko were injured, six being hospitalized. Rocket fragments fell in the woods in the same area starting a forest fire, and a Block D strap-on booster which came off during disintegration impacted the launch pad, causing structural damage.

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


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