Chris Hadfield said that on launch day, no astronaut takes to the skies with their fingers crossed. The way they’ve dealt with the stress induced by the risk is to picture the launch failing a thousand times before the moment of truth arrives. If the imagined failure comes true, the result can reverberate in the public consciousness around the world, and the effects could be felt for decades. It can also attract little attention even the government is unsuccessful in hushing it up. The entries on this list have been arranged based on both how many lives were lost, and how preventable the disaster was later judged to be. Before anyone takes to the comments, please note the momentous Challenger Disaster has been excluded from this list due to the fact that we’ve talked about it previously.
Our first entry has been included in the hope of beginning this list on a lighter note, to ease our way into more extreme cases…
10. Vanguard TV3
By the time the Vanguard TV3 launched, the United States of America had spent two months being deeply embarrassed that the Soviet Union’s Sputnik had been the first satellite to orbit the Earth. So the launch of America’s answer was moved up from the spring of 1958 to December 6, 1957. It was not only viewed by expectant throngs of onlookers at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but broadcast on live television. Thus millions were able to see the shuttle fly roughly one meter into the air, explode, and fall over.
It was perhaps the most embarrassing event in the history of the space race, with the Soviet Union making a point of offering the United States aid through the United Nations. Still, it said something about the can-do American spirit that Explorer 1 was successfully put into orbit by January 31, 1958, less than two months later.
Preventability: The leading theory is that the explosion was caused by a fuel leak or insufficient fuel pump pressure. However true that is, it seems quite likely that moving the launch of a pioneering space craft up by months was bound to increase the chance of insufficient safety checks.
Victims: Col. Vladimir Komarov
While Yuri Gagarin is celebrated for being the first man into space, his friend is remembered for being the first person to die returning from space. On April 23, 1967, Komarov’s Soyuz-1 (“Union-1”) entered orbit and then began to experience communications and power failures. These culminated in the parachutes needed for his descent failing to deploy, ensuring that Komarov would die in a small inferno. American espionage listening in would claim that Komarov received messages from the Soviet Premier along with his wife and children, yet transcripts would describe him as very humanly “crying with rage” as he fell. The corpse left behind would be grotesquely charred, and yet he received an open casket state funeral, as if to illustrate just what the cost of failure could be for the Soviet Union’s cosmonauts.
Preventability: There’s some level of debate over this. In the biography of Yuri Gagarin Starman by Jamie Doran and Piers Bronzy, it was asserted Gagarin and a team of engineers inspected Soyuz-1 and found 203 structural flaws, recommending in an ignored memo that the launch be delayed. NPR would later report that there were a number of critics that attempted to debunk the existence of the memo. If the memo was real, this seems like an extremely avoidable tragedy.
8. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
Victims: Michael Alsbury. (Peter Siebold injured.)
There are a significant number of people that want to privatize space exploration, and they may feel the entries on this list validate that opinion. To them we offer this sobering story.
On October 31, 2014, the fourth test flight of SpaceShipTwo was conducted by Michael Alsbury, who’d flown it for previous tests, and his co-pilot Peter Siebold. Alsbury deployed the innovative tail system for the suborbital vehicle when it was at flying at Mach .8 (Mach 1 being the speed of sound) instead of the necessary speed of Mach 1.4. As a result, the tail was bent, and the pilots lost control of the vehicle. Siebold survived only because he was able to deploy his parachute as his seat ejected. The wreck was so violent that debris from SpaceShipTwo was spread over five miles of the Mojave Desert.
Preventability: The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and nine months later attributed it to a combination of co-pilot error and a failure to fully disclose risks on the part of Scaled Composites, who’d built SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic. Scaled Composites knew of the danger of initiating the tail system too early but aside from a mention in an email and a powerpoint presentation hadn’t done anything to impart it to Alsbury.
And yet, as we’ll see later, it was neither the largest disaster in the development of Virgin Galactic’s space program nor the first.
7. NASA 901
Victims: Elliot See, Charlie Bassett. (Roughly a dozen others were injured.)
Most disasters related to space exploration occur during a launch or while reentering Earth’s atmosphere. This one was much more mundane, while not being any less tragic. Astronauts Elliot See and Charlie Bassett were flying to Lambert Field in St. Louis, Missouri on February 28, 1966 for the launch of Gemini IX. The mission was to fly to an unmanned Agena vehicle in Earth’s orbit and dock with it, meaning the mission would provide America’s third spacewalker. See and Bassett, like their backup astronauts Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford, were flying in T-38 Talon jets.
During the flight to the airbase, See performed an unusual flight maneuver during his descent which cut off the backup pilots from descending and caused him to fly past his target. While attempting to correct, See crashed his jet into the roof of McDonnell Building 101. Both astronauts were killed, with debris from the roof hitting about a dozen of the workers inside. Such was the violence of the accident that Bassett’s head was discovered in the rafters of the building later that day. Nevertheless, the launch of Gemini IX went on as scheduled.
Preventability: An investigation by NASA hypothesized that the accident was essentially the result of pilot error brought on by bad weather. See had flown in too low because he wanted to maintain visibility of the airfield on a foggy day. There was no coming to an absolute conclusion because See had died before he could answer any inquiries.
6. The 2007 Scaled Composites Disaster
Victims: Todd Ivens, Eric Blackwell, Charles May. (Three more injured.)
Most victims of space disasters that the layperson can name are astronauts. However, the engineers and maintenance personnel are at high risk as well. So it was that on July 26, 2007 engineers for Scaled Composites were testing the propellent flow system for SpaceShipTwo at Kern County Mojave Airport, 95 miles outside Los Angeles, California. A tank of nitrous oxide exploded with a force likened to a “five hundred pound bomb,” striking six workers with debris. Three were killed, two on the spot
Preventability: Investigators certainly rated it very high, considering that they found Scaled Composites guilty of five safety violations. For example, the engineers were performing the test with no more shielding from a potential explosion than a chain link fence. However, the relatively light fine was only about $25,000. When the second SpaceShipTwo disaster occured seven years later, Todd Ivens’s sister Tara Ford said of Virgin Galactic’s space program, “don’t let any more die!”
5. The Apollo 1 Fire
Victims: Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger B. Chaffee
It was supposed to be a routine preflight test. The fuel tanks for Apollo 1 as it was placed on the Saturn 1B pad were left empty on January 27, 1967. Then, at 11:31 a.m., a fire broke out in the command module. It would later be determined that what doomed the three astronauts aboard as much as anything was that the hatch on the command module they were trapped inside only opened inward. The air pressure inside from the sudden rise in temperature and release of gases was so high (more than seventeen pounds per square inch) that it could not be opened at all until five minutes after the fire broke out, and reports would state that the crew of the shuttle had likely died from heat and smoke inhalation within the first minute. So terrible was the conflagration that it was only after seven and a half hours that the bodies were removed.
Preventability: The verdict of the 18-month investigation into the accident was that there had been a short circuit from in front of Gus Grissom’s seat. NASA undertook extensive measures to ensure there would be no repeats of this accident. Naturally, the hatches were redesigned to open outwards, along with replacing any flammable components with fire-suppressants.
4. Soyuz 11
Victims: Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, Viktor Patsayev
Soyuz-11’s mission was poised to be one of the great feats in astronomical history. Having docked with Salyut 1, the world’s first space station, on June 7, 1971, their return on June 30 promised to set a new record for the longest time humans had endured staying in orbit. When their capsule landed in almost precisely the intended location — seemingly perfectly intact — it seemed a hero’s welcome was surely coming. The Soyuz crew had become media darlings, live footage of them on the space station having become a TV show. When the capsule was opened, the recovery team found the three men seemed to be unconscious. Their bodies were still warm so CPR was attempted, but it was quickly revealed that they had been dead for several minutes. For a time speculation swirled that perhaps their deaths proved there were hard limits to how long humans could survive in zero gravity. To this day, the poor men are the only three that have died in space.
Preventability: In the subsequent analysis, Vasili Mishin, the chief designer of the Soyuz 11, was the one who found that the capsule had been decompressed by the valve loosening during the detachment from Salyut 1. The crew had died of suffocation with less than a minute to scramble for valves. It was pointed out that if the crew had been provided space suits they almost certainly would have survived.
3. Columbia STS-107
Victims: Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, William McCool, Ilan Ramon
One of the most recent disasters on our list is that of the Columbia STS-107, and it was the result of something that sounds trivial. During the launch from the Kennedy Space Center on January 16, 2003, a piece of foam weighing 1.67 pounds broke off one of the fuel tanks and fell on the left wing. This caused a leak of extremely hot gases that further cut through the wing. The extent of the damage was unsuspected until after the mission’s various scientific experiments were completed and reentry was attempted on February 1, 2003. There was only the paltry relief of knowing that the crew was reported to have lost consciousness after only a few seconds.
Preventability: NASA was unusually explicit in its 400 page report that was released in December 2008 after more than five years of investigation: Nothing could be done by the crew to save themselves as soon as the damage was inflicted on the wing. “The breakup of the crew module and the crew’s subsequent exposure to hypersonic entry conditions was not survivable by any currently existing capability” was the way it was put. Despite NASA’s attempts to fix the process, on July 15, 2009, the launch of the shuttle Endeavor was jeopardized by nearly a dozen pieces of foam striking the underbelly of the shuttle, meaning the crew came perilously close to a repeat of the Columbia’s fate. The evidence points to this being a very difficult to avoid threat.
2. Plesetsk Cosmodrome
Victims: 45 killed instantly, five more died during rescue attempts
Plesetsk Cosmodrome is located roughly 500 miles north of Moscow, and in addition to still being Russia’s largest spaceport today, in 1957 it became the first place that the Soviet Union placed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. On March 19, 1980, the Vostok rocket was supposed to be launched with the intention of putting a spy satellite named Ikar into orbit. Instead, both the rocket and the entire launch pad were destroyed in a massive explosion that the Soviet newspaper Pravda attempted to cover by claiming the launch had been a success, and didn’t admit the truth until 1989.
Preventability: There was some debate over what specifically caused 300 tons of fuel to explode. The state report was that it had been caused by human error, with fuel being allowed to leak, but the Russian TV show Independent Investigation insisted during a broadcast in 2000 that it was a problem with the fuel filters. Whatever the truth, Independent Investigation was adamant that “the safety of personnel was the least of (Plestek Cosmodrome’s) worries,” and the fact there was no attempt to modernize the facility in the subsequent 20 years seems to bear that out. Under such circumstances, preventing tragedies like this becomes very difficult indeed.
Victims: Officially, six dead and 57 personnel injured. Potentially hundreds of anonymous civilians.
The role China has played in the space race remains relatively low profile in the West. The destruction of this Long March 3B rocket near the town of Xichang and the border with Vietnam on February 14, 1996 is one of the more prominent events, especially since there were such American witnesses as safety specialist Bruce Campbell (no, not that one), who was interviewed by Smithsonian.
The launch to deliver the commercial satellite took place at three in the morning, and the shuttle was in the air for about 20 seconds as it arched towards the housing facilities for the launch personnel. Those buildings were empty because everyone was out watching the launch, but the explosion of the 426-ton rocket leveled numerous surrounding buildings as well. A local monument to ancient Chinese rocketry history was destroyed.
Preventability: The cause of the disaster was determined to be a problem with the welding and flight control system (there was an early official report that said it was the result of severe winds). The American contractors claimed that safety at the launch facility was lax. Yet the only known entity to receive official punishment was the US satellite company Loral Space and Communications, which was fined $14 million by the US government in 2002 for sharing confidential information with the Chinese government that allowed the government to determine the nature of the problem.
The position of the Chinese government seemed to be to downplay the tragedy as much as possible. Campbell claimed that he visited the site of the village later and found it had been cleared not only of any sign there had been a crash, but any village at all. In official statements the government claimed that the village had been evacuated before the launch, but that was directly contradicted by Campbell’s recollection of seeing many villagers leaving the crash site in the aftermath, and others who claimed to see pickup truck beds filled with corpses. Actively trying to forget the past is a good way to avoid learning from it.
Dustin Koski is also the author of Not Meant to Know, a dark fantasy novel about rogue exorcists.