Since rockets were first invented, several thousand of them have been launched into space with varying degrees of success. Some of these were just sounding rockets, and others have been massive machines like the 363-foot high Saturn V rocket. The learning curve for getting rockets from the ground into space has been a steep one however and even today tiny errors or unforeseen circumstances can result in catastrophic failure and disaster.
10. The Alcantara Explosion
Back in the year 2003 a Brazilian rocket, a prototype vehicle being used to launch observation satellites, exploded on the launch pad killing 21 people. The explosion was the result of one of the main thrust engines igniting unintentionally while technicians were still working on it. In total, 21 people were killed in the explosion. They were only able to find the remains of two of them because of how intense the burn was. In fact, to determine the exact number of people who died, they had to do a roll call because there weren’t enough remains to identify.
The rocket was the third prototype in the series that actually failed but by far it was the most catastrophic failure of the three. The 62-foot rocket weighed 50 tons, was outfitted with 40 tons of fuel and it cost $6.5 million to produce. After previous attempts had failed, this rocket was supposed to bring Brazil up to speed with other countries that had satellite launching capability. Obviously that wasn’t the case.
9. The Nedelin Catastrophe
Potentially the worst rocket disaster in history, the Nedelin disaster happened in Russia back in 1960 but news of it didn’t make it to our part of the world until 1989. Russian authorities kept the disaster under wraps, which was impressive considering the scope of it. It was reported that 78 people died, although some other sources claim anywhere from 90 to 126 people died as a result and 120 others suffered non-fatal injuries.
It is believed that a short circuit in the main sequencer of an AR-16 prototype rocket caused the misfire which detonated a fuel tank destroying the missile. Remarkably, a camera was running at the time, which caught the explosion as it happened. Everyone who was nearby was immediately incinerated but those who were farther away were left to suffer death by extensive burns or toxic vapors from the fuel itself. Many of those in the area tried to escape but were trapped by the security fence as the entire area was engulfed in flames. Two survivors of the blast had left just before the accident to go have a cigarette behind a bunker but they were still severely burned.
The Soviet government covered up the disaster immediately. The commanding officer of the base was said to have died in a plane crash and everyone else involved was said to have met the same fate as well. Despite their cover-up, the Italian news reported that it was a rocket explosion almost right away and in 1965 a Soviet spy confirmed the details as well. However, the Soviet Union didn’t acknowledge the accident at all until 1989.
8. Falcon 1’s Faulty Nut
Sometimes the smallest things can have big consequences, as was the case with the Falcon 1 rocket launch back in 2006. A fuel leak in the SpaceX rocket caused the main engine to catch on fire just after the rocket cleared the launch pad. The cause for the fuel leak was traced to a tiny aluminum nut that was designed to hold a fuel pipe fitting. Apparently it had suffered some corrosion that was not visible to the naked eye, but that was enough to cause fuel to leak out.
After the engine ignited the leaking fuel caught fire and that caused a loss of pneumatic pressure. That in turn made some fuel and oxygen valves close, causing the engines to stop after just 34 seconds. At that point Falcon 1 crashed back to the Earth in a reef not far from the launch site. When it hit, the satellite payload of the rocket was actually launched into the air before landing on a shed on a nearby island next to the truck that had brought it there in the first place.
7. Falcon 9’s Faulty Strut
Nine years after the failure of the Falcon 1 rocket, Elon Musk and SpaceX were back facing problems with their Falcon 9. It’s believed a faulty strut inside the booster’s upper stage failed which caused the rocket to explode shortly after it launched.
The rocket was on a mission to resupply the space station on behalf of NASA; however, a strut that held down a bottle of high-pressure helium snapped on the way up. The bottle then shot like a bullet out of the top of the booster liquid oxygen tank, which caused what they call an over pressure event. In layman’s terms, it caused the rocket to blow up.
Normally there are hundreds of these struts on the rocket that are capable of withstanding at least 10,000 pounds of force. It’s estimated that this particular strut was only subject to about 2,000 pounds when it broke, meaning there was a fault somewhere in its design.
6. Proton-M’s Chain of Problems
Russia’s Proton-M rockets have a bad habit of failing on launch or shortly thereafter. Out of 53 launches, five of them failed between 2008 and 2013. 10% may not seem like a lot, but when we’re talking about multimillion dollar rockets that can potentially explode so violently that no human remains are left afterwards, it’s a serious issue.
The worst thing about the continual Proton-M failures, and there have been more since 2013, is that they should be predictable. For instance, on May 16, 2015 the cause of the Proton-M rocket failure was a flaw in the turbo pump for the third stage steering engine. This exact same problem caused the exact same rocket to crash back in 1988. In 1988 it was Mexico’s MexiSat-1 satellite that was meant to be launched when the turbo pump failed. The launch vehicle was the Proton-M rocket.
Since a Proton-M rocket costs about $65 million — and that doesn’t include all the infrastructure and setup costs that are involved in arranging for a rocket launch before it goes bad — you would think that someone would check to make sure the things that made previous rockets explode were no longer problems.
5. The Vanguard TV-3 Flop
During the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union were always trying to one-up each other. The space race was one of the biggest and most bombastic ways that one country could shame the other. Going where no man had gone before seemed like a clear way to show off your country’s prowess when it came to science and engineering. That’s exactly how the Vanguard TV-3 rocket came to be such a failure.
Both the US and the Soviet Union were competing to launch the world’s first satellite into orbit. In October 1957, the Soviet Union won that race by launching Sputnik. They followed it up with a second Sputnik before the US was able to try to come to the table with their own. Rushing through the process was a bad idea, as their first attempt in December 1957, the Vanguard Test Vehicle 3, managed to get a stunning four feet off the ground before it fell over and exploded.
The main problem with this launch failure was because the US had two organizations competing to be the first to the table, which meant that resources were stretched thin. And of course, scrambling to get something in the air just because another country showed you up is not a good way to do science.
4. GOES-G Didn’t Go
Sometimes no amount of planning can prevent a disaster from happening. That was the case with the GOES-G satellite that NASA was hoping to launch back in 1986. The launch seemed to go off without a hitch and there wasn’t technically a failure in the design that caused it to crash, instead nature seemed to have it in for NASA.
After 1 minute’s worth of flight time, lightning struck the Delta rocket that was carrying the satellite. A short circuit shut down the rocket’s main engine and with a couple of boosters still firing the rocket began to tumble out of control.
In order to minimize the damage, NASA actually engaged the rocket’s self destruct so that the whole thing wouldn’t crash to the ground causing even more damage. Technically the rocket should have been able to handle a direct lightning strike but some problems with the wiring caused the short circuit after lightning hit. The upside of the accident was that rockets since that time have been redesigned to be better able to handle electrical surges.
3. Cosmos 1 Couldn’t Sail
Solar sails have been a staple of science-fiction for some years now. The seemingly outlandish concept involves using a massive mylar sail to catch photons from the sun to use as propulsion in space. The science behind it is sound, but the idea still strikes many people as bizarre. Fortunately, people like Carl Sagan were all about trying unusual approaches to science and expanding our universe.
The Cosmos1 mission was meant to launch a solar sail device into space. As a joint mission between a group called the Planetary Society as well as the Russian space agency, Carl Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan tried to bring the sci-fi concept to reality back in 2005.
The rocket itself is to be launched from a submarine in the Barents Sea while mission control was inexplicably located in a barn in Pasadena. With Bill Nye the Science Guy and actress Kirsten Dunst on hand for reasons that weren’t entirely relevant to the mission, the $4,000,000 rocket was launched. It managed to do its job for 83 seconds before turning around and falling back into the sea. The reason for the rocket’s failure has never accurately been determined.
2. Mad Mike Hughes and the Flat Earth Rocket
Generally when you think of a rocket launch you imagine a lot of the science and engineering that went into creating the rocket and allowed for the entire event to happen. This is the exact opposite of what went on with Mad Mike Hughes and his homemade rocket. Not that there wasn’t science involved, and not that Mad Mike himself was an obviously skilled man to be able to even attempt this endeavor. The problem was that Mad Mike’s homemade rocket was built so that he could see for himself whether or not the Earth was flat. If that’s your starting point for launching yourself into space, you have a problem.
Unfortunately for Mike, who had two previous attempts at a rocket launch in the past, when he launched himself in February 2020 it proved to be his final attempt. The steam powered rocket was meant to reach 5,000 feet, allowing Hughes the vantage point to see the curvature of the Earth for himself, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, in order to access the rocket he had to climb a ladder to get into it. That same ladder was in the way when the rocket launched and the two collided. That ripped open the parachute can on the back of the rocket. That, in turn, got caught in the thrust and knocked the whole thing off course. The rocket got to a dangerous enough height before arcing back to the Earth. When rescue crews got to the scene, they found that Hughes had likely died on impact.
1. The Challenger Disaster
You can’t really go over a list of rocket disasters without remembering the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986. The Challenger had already been to space in 1983 and in three years had spent over 62 days in space already. The first space walk of the NASA space shuttle program was carried out by the crew of the Challenger and America’s first female astronaut and first African American astronaut were on board the Challenger. It was on the 10th launch that the shuttle exploded a mere 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members instantly.
The Challenger had been riddled with problems in its past as the vessel was never even intended to go in space to begin with. It was built as a test vehicle but retrofitted with the necessary components to make it space-worthy. That wasn’t an instantaneous transformation, however, as there were problems with a hydrogen leak in the main engine and other systems.
The problem that led to the disaster was blamed on cold weather degrading the seal on the rocket boosters. The result of the explosion was an extensive overhaul of NASA’s shuttle program including ending the prospect of allowing non astronauts into space for more than two decades.