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A brief history of space accidents

03 February 2003
A brief history of space accidents

There have been problems on most space missions, whether acknowledged at the time or not. This is by no means a comprehensive list of accidents and close calls, but serves to illustrate the dangers inherent in manned space missions.

Vostok (12 April 1961):
on the very first manned space mission, the instrument module initially failed to detach from the descent module following retrofire. It only separated when the heat of re-entry burned through the straps which attached the two modules.

Mercury-MA 6/‘Friendship 7’ (20 February 1962):
America’s first manned orbital flight. Sensors suggested that the heat shield skirt might have deployed in orbit, and as a result the retrorocket pack was kept attached to the returning spacecraft to prevent the heat shield possibly becoming detached during re-entry.

Gemini 8 (17 March 1966):
after the spacecraft had performed the first space docking with an Agena rocket stage, thrusters started firing, putting the docked assembly into an uncontrolled spin. The two-man Gemini crew separated their spacecraft and had to use some of the propellant reserved for the return to Earth to stabilise their spacecraft. The mission was curtailed two days earlier than planned.

Apollo 1 (27 January 1967):
not an actual space mission, but the three-man crew was training inside the spacecraft atop the unfuelled Saturn-1B launcher when a flash fire killed all three astronauts: Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee.

Soyuz 1 (24 April 1967):
after launch, only one solar panel deployed, meaning that there was only 50% of the expected electrical power and also some of the control thrusters were blocked by the folded panel. Vladimir Komarov, the sole cosmonaut on board, was able to bring the spacecraft out of orbit after 26 hours, but the descent module was tumbling during re-entry, resulting in both the prime and back-up parachutes becoming entangled after deployment. The spacecraft crashed, killing Komarov: the first in-flight space fatality.

Soyuz 5 (18 January 1969):
echoing the problems with the first Vostok, the Soyuz 5 descent module failed to separate from the rear instrument/ propulsion module until the heat of re-entry severed the straps holding the two modules together. The one cosmonaut on board made a safe landing.

Apollo 12 (14 November 1969):
shortly after launch the Saturn-5 was struck by lightning, knocking all of its systems offline. Power was restored and the crew went on to accomplish the second manned lunar landing.

Apollo 13 (13 April 1970):
an explosion in the service module during the trans-lunar coast crippled the spacecraft and resulted in the planned lunar landing being scrapped. The crew was successfully returned to Earth after living in the lunar module during most of the remainder of the flight.

Soyuz 11 (30 June 1971):
after the first successful space station residency (aboard the first Salyut), the three-man Soyuz 11 crew – Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – died when pressure was lost inside the Soyuz descent module during their return to Earth. A faulty valve opened at the time of the orbital module’s separation, allowing the descent module’s atmosphere to leak into space.

Soyuz ‘18-1’ (5 April 1975):
the second crew was launched to the Salyut 4 space station, but the central core of the Soyuz launcher failed to separate from the third stage of the vehicle. The two-man crew separated its spacecraft and was able to land close to the Chinese border (on the Soviet side), bruised but still alive. This was the first in-flight launch abort of a manned space mission.

Soyuz 33 (12 April 1979):
a two-man Soviet-Bulgarian crew was on its way to the Salyut 6 space station when its propulsion system failed. The space station mission was cancelled, and the crew returned to Earth using the back-up propulsion system after two days in orbit.

Soyuz-T ‘10-1’ (26 September 1983):
the Soyuz-U launch vehicle caught fire during the final stages of the countdown, and the two cosmonaut crewmembers had to use their escape tower to complete the first – and to date only – off-the-pad abort with a crew on board. The crew landed close to the launch site, badly bruised after surviving nearly 20g acceleration, but they were still alive.

Challenger/51L (28 January 1986):
shortly after launch, the External Tank carried on this shuttle mission exploded, killing the seven crew members: Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Elison Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnik.

Soyuz-TM 5 (6 September 1988):
returning from a visit to the Mir orbital station, computer problems prevented retrofire taking place after the spacecraft’s orbital module had been discarded. If retrofire the following day had been unsuccessful the two-man crew – including the first Afghan cosmonaut – would have been stranded in orbit.

Mir/Progress-M 34 (25 June 1997):
during a re-docking experiment involving the Progress-M 34 cargo freighter, the freighter collided with the Spektr module of the Mir space station complex, resulting in the module’s depressurisation. The on-board crew of two Russians and one visiting NASA astronaut were able to isolate Spektr, preventing full depressurisation of the station, but they had to survive with only partial power for some time. It was not until the next resident Russian crew arrived that repairs could be completed.

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