Encyclopedia Astronautica
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The Hard Road to Space
One third of manned spaceflights suffer major problems that threaten completion of the mission and the life of the astronauts. Five crews - 2% of missions - have perished in their spacecraft....SPACEFLIGHT IS NOT 'ROUTINE'.

  • 1961 April 12 - Vostok 1. Strap attaching service module failed to separate from capsule, leading to wild ride before it burned through during re-entry.
  • 1961 July 21 - Mercury MR-4. Hatch blew after splashdown; capsule sank; astronaut barely saved before drowning.
  • 1962 February 20 - Mercury MA-6. Erroneous warning signal led ground to believe landing bag had deployed, dooming astronaut to incineration on re-entry. Re-entry was accomplished with the retro-rocket pack retained, resulting in a spectacular and unpredictable return to earth.
  • 1962 May 24 - Mercury MA-7. Excessive fuel use and pilot error led to late re-entry, and landing 300 km past the intended point. Capsule ran out of orientation fuel during re-entry.
  • 1963 May 15 - Mercury MA-9. In long duration mission, virtually all capsule systems failed. Nevertheless the astronaut was able to manually guide the spacecraft to a pinpoint landing.
  • 1963 June 14 - Vostok 5. Spacecraft ended up in a lower than planned orbit and quickly decayed - temperatures in the service module reached very high levels and the flight returned early.
  • 1963 June 16 - Vostok 6. Tereshkova did not reply during several communications sessions. To this day it is not known if she was paralysed with fear, or if there was an equipment failure.
  • 1965 March 18 - Voskhod 2. Cosmonaut barely able to get back into air lock after world's first space walk. Oxygen leak flooded cabin, creating fire danger. Manual re-entry when main system failed, resulting in landing in Ural Mountains. Crew spent night in woods, surrounded by wolves, before recovery crews arrived.
  • 1965 June 3 - Gemini 4. Astronaut could barely get back into capsule after first American spacewalk. Failure of spacecraft computer resulted in high-G ballistic re-entry.
  • 1965 August 21 - Gemini 5. Fuel cell problem led to cancellation of experiments, extremely boring free-drift mode to meet duration goal.
  • 1965 December 15 - Gemini 6. First launch attempt resulted in shut-down of the main engines a second after they had already ignited. The booster settled back onto the pad unsecured. The crew decided not to eject.
  • 1966 March 16 - Gemini 8. A stuck thruster aboard Gemini resulted in the crew nearly blacking out before the resulting spin could be stopped. An emergency landing in the mid-Pacific Ocean followed.
  • 1966 June 3 - Gemini 9. Could not dock with target vehicle due to jammed shroud. During space walk astronaut became exhausted and face plate fogged over. He was barely able to return to the spacecraft and close the hatch.
  • 1966 July 18 - Gemini 10. Astronaut lost grip in space walk from Gemini to Agena, tumbled head over heels at end of umbilical around Gemini.
  • 1967 April 23 - Soyuz 1. Solar panel failed to deploy. Mission aborted and successful retrofire completed. However capsule's main parachute would not jettison from container and astronaut killed on impact with earth.
  • 1967 November 15 - X-15 Flight 191. Astronaut killed when rocketplane entered unrecoverable flat spin at Mach 5 during re-entry.
  • 1968 October 11 - Apollo 7. Crew suffered head colds and 'revolted' against mission control.
  • 1968 October 26 - Soyuz 3. Nearly all manoeuvre propellant was used in unsuccessful attempt to dock with Soyuz 2.
  • 1968 December 21 - Apollo 8. Crew had no 'lifeboat' in case of massive failure en route to moon (as would happen later with Apollo 13).
  • 1969 January 15 - Soyuz 5. Service module failed to separate resulting in nose-first re-entry. The bolts connecting the service module to the re-entry capsule finally burned through and the capsule turned around, heat shield forward, just before the forward hatch melted. All capsule propellant was exhausted and the cosmonaut made a 9-G uncontrolled re-entry, landing hundreds of kilometres short. At the celebration of his return, the cosmonaut is shot at during an attempt to assasinate the Soviet premier.
  • 1969 January 15 - Soyuz 4/5. Suit hung up on attempt to exit spacecraft and flow of oxygen was shut off. Fixing this diverted the crew, resulting in no film of the world's first crew transfer between two spacecraft.
  • 1969 March 3 - Apollo 9. First flight of a crew in a spacecraft with no means to return to earth. If rendezvous and docking of the Lunar Module with the Apollo CSM had failed, the crew would have been stranded in orbit.
  • 1969 May 18 - Apollo 10. Incorrect switch setting led to wild gyrations when the LM ascent stage separated at an altitude of 15 km above the lunar surface. The crew regained control only two seconds before the LM would have been an an irreversible course to crash on the moon.
  • 1969 October 11 - Soyuz 6. Rendezvous electronics failed, scrubbing three-way spacecraft rendezvous mission.
  • 1969 October 12 - Soyuz 7. Rendezvous electronics failed, scrubbing three-way spacecraft rendezvous mission.
  • 1969 October 13 - Soyuz 8. Rendezvous electronics failed, scrubbing three-way spacecraft rendezvous mission.
  • 1969 November 14 - Apollo 12. Lightning struck the booster twice during ascent, causing drop-off line of most spacecraft systems. Decision was made to press on to moon, despite possibility landing pyrotechnics were damaged.
  • 1970 April 11 - Apollo 13. Fuel cell tank exploded en route to the moon, resulting in loss of all power and oxygen. Only through use of the still-attached LM as a lifeboat could the crew survive to return to earth.
  • 1970 June 1 - Soyuz 9. Head-over-heels rotation of Soyuz to conserve fuel and lack of exercise resulted in terrible condition of astronauts on return. The Soviets almost reconsidered their space station plans as a result.
  • 1971 January 31 - Apollo 14. Five attempts to dock the command module with the lunar module failed for no apparent reason - the sixth was successful.
  • 1971 April 23 - Soyuz 10. Hard dock with station could not be achieved. When the astronauts tried to pull away, they were stuck and could separate from the station only after repeated attempts. Toxic fumes in air supply during landing overcame one astronaut.
  • 1971 June 6 - Soyuz 11. Main telescope inoperative due to failure of cover to jettison. Fire in space station nearly resulted in emergency evacuation. Fail-safe valve opening during re-entry resulted in decompression and death of entire crew.
  • 1971 July 26 - Apollo 15. One of the three main parachutes failed, causing a hard but survivable splashdown.
  • 1972 April 16 - Apollo 16. CSM main engine failure detected in lunar orbit. Landing almost aborted.
  • 1973 May 25 - Skylab 2. Crew had to conduct major repairs to get damaged station in operation. Astronaut flung into space during release of solar wing. High temperatures in station brought down by deployment of sunshade.
  • 1973 July 28 - Skylab 3. Leaks in Apollo CSM thrusters led to preparation of a rescue mission. In the end it was decided to attempt a landing with the faulty thrusters.
  • 1973 November 16 - Skylab 4. Rebellion by crew against NASA Ground Control overtasking led to none of the crew ever flying again.
  • 1974 August 26 - Soyuz 15. Space station mission aborted when rendezvous electronics failed.
  • 1975 April 5 - Soyuz 18-1. During launch third stage separation failed to occur. Crew aborted to 20 G landing in mountains near Chinese border, sliding down a slope towards a cliff until their parachute snagged on a tree.
  • 1975 July 15 - Apollo (ASTP). Crew nearly killed by toxic propellant vapours dumped into the cabin air supply during re-entry.
  • 1976 July 6 - Soyuz 21. Crew member became psychotic and mission was returned to earth from space station early. Toxic gases in station were suspected.
  • 1976 October 14 - Soyuz 23. Docking aborted due to electronics failure. Crew nearly froze to death after an emergency landing in a lake in a blizzard at -20 deg C. It took hours before the capsule could be dragged to shore.
  • 1977 October 9 - Soyuz 25. Failed to dock with station due to damage to spacecraft's docking mechanism.
  • 1981 April 12 - STS-1. The only time a new spacecraft was launched manned on its first flight. Many thought it would be a disaster.
  • 1981 November 12 - STS-2. Experienced erosion of the primary O-ring in the right SRM aft field joint. The erosion was the deepest experienced in flight in a case field joint, until the loss of the space shuttle Challenger on flight STS 51-L.
  • 1982 November 11 - STS-5. The EVA was delayed because one of the astronauts was vomiting so severely due to space sickness that it was feared he might do it inside his space helmet, possibly killing him due to suffocation. Official reason was 'malfunction of suit'.
  • 1983 April 4 - STS-6. First use of the lightweight SRM case. When the SRMs were dismantled, blowholes through the putty in both nozzle joints were found. The O-rings were affected by heat, but were not eroded.
  • 1983 June 18 - STS-7. First known bipod ramp foam loss. Images revealed that a 50 x 30 cm piece of the left bipod ramp of the External Tank was missing, and that the tank had 65 shallow divots. A similar event caused the loss of STS-107 and its crew.
  • 1983 September 26 - Soyuz T-10-1. Launch vehicle blew up on pad, crew rescued by launch escape tower, which pulled their capsule away at 20 G's.
  • 1983 November 28 - STS-9. Suspect exhaust nozzle on right solid rocket booster only noticed on pad. Landing delayed when general purpose computers one and two failed and inertial measurement unit one failed. Columbia landed on fire. One of the hydraulic pumps sprang a leak that pooled hydrazine in the aft engine compartment. The fire spread, disabling the second hydraulic system after shutdown. If the fire had begun seconds earlier, all three hydraulic systems would have failed, the shuttle would have been uncontrollable, and crashed in the desert.
  • 1984 February 3 - STS-41-B. Experienced O-ring erosion in both the right hand nozzle joint and the left SRB forward field joint. The O-ring erosion extended over 2 to 7 cm with a maximum depth of 1 mm. The concept of 'acceptable erosion' began to be advocated by SRM builder Thiokol and NASA management.
  • 1984 April 6 - STS-41-C. Experienced erosion of the primary O-ring in the right-hand nozzle joint.
  • 1984 August 30 - STS-41-D. First launch aborted at T-3 seconds. The SSME's ignited, but then shutdown due to a Redundant Set Launch Sequencer Abort.

    In orbit a urine icicle developed on the outside of the shuttle due to a failure of the waste water venting system. A contingency operation using the shuttle robot arm had to be developed and used to break off the icicle so that it didn't happen during reentry, damaging the heat tiles on the OMS pods. The crew was unable to use the toilet for the remainder of the flight.

    Experienced primary O-ring erosion in both the right-hand forward field joint and the left-hand nozzle joint. There was a small amount of soot behind the primary O-ring, indicating short duration blow-by. This was the first occurrence of blow-by in either the case-to-case or nozzle-to-case joints.

  • 1985 January 24 - STS-51-C. Experienced blow-by in both nozzle joints and erosion and blow-by in two case joints. The calculated O-ring temperature was 12 degrees C, the coldest prior to the loss of Challenger on STS-51-L. The flight hardware evidenced the worst case of "blow-by" experienced by any Shuttle flight. The primary nozzle joint O-rings were not damaged. There was black grease (sooted) behind the primary O-ring over a 110 arc and the secondary O-ring was affected (but not eroded) by heat over a 75 cm span.
  • 1985 April 12 - STS-51-D. The inboard right-side brake locked on landing, resulting in severe brake damage and the explosion of the tire. Experienced erosion of the primary O-rings in both nozzle joints. There was no blow-by past either nozzle O-ring.
  • 1985 April 29 - STS-51-B. Suffered the worst O-ring erosion experienced prior to the loss of Challenger on STS-51-L. The left-hand nozzle primary O-ring eroded to a depth of 4 mm inches over a 4 cm span with considerable blow-by. The secondary O-ring was eroded to a depth of 8 mm inches over an 8 cm span. The right-hand nozzle O-ring eroded as well but there was no blow-by associated with this erosion.
  • 1985 June 17 - STS-51-G. Experienced blow-by and erosion in both nozzle joints. There was blow-by, although none of the secondary O-rings were damaged.
  • 1985 July 29 - STS-51-F. Second engine-start pad abort of the program. First ascent abort when the center SSME shut down three minutes early due to faulty engine temperature sensors. At T+645 seconds the number one engine shut down prematurely due to a sensor problem. An abort to orbit was declared. Also experienced a blow hole through the putty in the right-hand SRM nozzle and the primary O-ring was affected by heat.
  • 1985 August 27 - STS-51-I. Suffered primary O-ring erosion in two locations on the left-hand SRM nozzle joint. There was no blow-by.
  • 1985 October 30 - STS-61-A. Experienced erosion of the right-hand nozzle primary O-ring and the first case-to-case field joint O-ring anomaly since mission STS 51-C. There was blow-by past the primary O-rings in the centre and aft field joints on the left-hand SRM. The O-rings were not damaged.
  • 1985 November 27 - STS-61-B. Experienced primary O-ring erosion in both nozzle joints. There was blow-by past the primary O-ring in the left-hand nozzle joint.
  • 1986 January 12 - STS-61-C. On a 6 January 1986 launch attempt, a temperature probe inside a propellant line broke off and went into a fluid control valve in one of the SSME's, jamming it in the open position. Had the launch not been scrubbed for other reasons, the valve probably would have caused a turbopump engine overspeed at engine shutdown, resulting in disintegration, and loss of both nearby hydraulic systems. Columbia would have made it to orbit, but been unable to return to earth. This would have been compound by a massive undetected loss of liquid oxygen propellant before the launch. This would have meant Columbia would have run out of propellant, not reached orbit, then lost its hydraulic systems, and then burned up on reentry.

    Congressman Nelson was another politician-astronaut, and his assignment to the flight condemned Jarvis, who he bumped, to death aboard Challenger. Nelson insisted that he wanted to do something 'important' on the flight. Wags in the astronaut office soon were joking that Nelson would operate some minor experiment in order to "find the cure to cancer" or take photos of Ethiopia in order to "end famine in Africa". Finally Nelson asked for a communications link-up with the Salyut space station. Astronauts joked that his mission was now to "bring about world peace". When the crew of Salyut 7 abruptly returned home, the astronauts joked that even the Commies didn't want to help Nelson on his quest.

    Experienced nozzle joint O-ring erosion and blow-by and field joint O-ring erosion.

  • 1986 January 28 - STS-51-L. An O-ring failure in a solid rocket booster led to leaking of hot gases against the external tank. The resulting explosion killed the seven member crew.

    NASA was frenetic over publicizing the teacher in space angle, even to the extent of compromising mission safety. When the launch was delayed, meaning the flight day McAuliffe was to teach her 'lesson from space' was moved from a weekday to a weekend, NASA took the unprecedented move of ordering the flight schedule to be rearranged so the lesson would instead be given on a school day. The training and planning of months had to be revised in hours. Payload specialist Jarvis was on this flight only because his original crew assignment had been deleted when Congressman Bill Nelson claimed a seat on the flight. Jarvis, an employee of Hughes, was supposed to be making observations of satellite deployment. But since there was no Hughes satellite aboard Challenger, the assignment made no sense.

  • 1988 December 2 - STS-27. At T+85 seconds a large piece of debris struck the shuttle. The orbiter took 707 hits, 298 greater than an 2.4 cm in size. One tile was knocked off, but behind it was a thick plate covering the L-band antenna. Otherwise burn-through would have occurred.
  • 1990 January 9 - STS-32. Second bipod ramp foam loss. Photography revealed five divots in the intertank foam ranging from 14 to 70 cm in diameter. The lower surface of the Orbiter took 111 hits, 13 of which were 2.4 cm or greater.
  • 1990 February 28 - STS-36. Launch delayed due to illness of crew members.
  • 1992 March 24 - STS-45. Damage to wing RCC Panel 10-right, most likely due to orbital debris.
  • 1992 June 25 - STS-50. Third bipod foam loss. A 60 x 25 cm piece separated from the left bipod ramp area. A 20 x 10 x 1 cm divot was made in a heat shield tile, the largest area of tile damage in Shuttle history.
  • 1992 October 22 - STS-52. The external tank lost a 10 x 20 cm corner of the left bipod ramp and part of the foam covering the left jackpad. The orbiter took a higher-than-average 290 hits on upper and lower tiles, 16 of which were greater than 2.4 cm in one dimension.
  • 1994 March 4 - STS-62. The external tank lost a 2.4 x 7 cm piece of foam in the rear face of the left bipod ramp.
  • 1996 November 19 - STS-80. The shuttle's exit hatch would not open and NASA cancelled the planned spacewalks of the mission.
  • 1997 April 4 - STS-83. Orbiter recalled to earth after three days of flight when one of three fuel cells failed. Mission reflown as STS-94.
  • 1997 November 19 - STS-87. Loss of external tank intertank foam results in over 100 hits on orbiter heat shield.
  • 1999 July 23 - STS-93. A repair pin in an SSME 3's combustion chamber came loose, punching a hole in the nozzle cooling jacket. Hydrogen fuel leaked out during the ascent, resulting in Columbia running out of gas and ending up in an orbit seven miles lower than planned. At the same time a short circuit had disabled two of the SSME's engine controllers at five seconds into the flight, so the ascent was made on remaining backup controller, with no remaining backup.
  • 2002 October 7 - STS-112. The primary hold-down bolt initiators failed; the backups functioned, blowing the bolts holding the shuttle to the pad. If they had not functioned, the shuttle would have still been attached tot he pad at SRB ignition, probably resulting in it cartwheeling to destruction. At T+33 seconds, at 3.8 km and Mach 0.75 a 5 x 6 x 30 cm corner of the external tank left bipod ramp separated, hitting the booster-tank attachment ring and making a 10 x 3 cm dent. Two flights later a similar event would doom the STS-107 crew to death.
  • 2002 November 24 - STS-113. Four attempts to land on consecutive days, called because of bad weather.
  • 2002 November 24 - ISS EO-6. OMS valve stuck on shuttle during ascent, requiring orbital manoeuvres with the single remaining engine. On return to earth aboard Soyuz guidance failed and a ballistic entry subjected the crew to over 8 G's and a landing 460 km short of the planned location.
  • 2003 January 16 - STS-107. Crew perished when shuttle broke up during re-entry. Cause was damage to a leading-edge RCC from foam breaking off of external tank bipod strut.
  • 2004 June 21 - SpaceShipOne Flight 15P. Spacecraft rolled 90 degrees right and left at motor ignition; attitude control lost at engine shut down; engine fairing collapsed.
  • 2004 September 29 - SpaceShipOne Flight 16P. Spacecraft did a series of 60 rolls during last stage of engine burn.
  • 2007 April 7 - ISS EO-15. The re-entry burn began at 09:47 and was normal. But afterwards, due to failure of an explosive bolt, the Soyuz service module remained connected to the re-entry capsule. The Soyuz tumbled, then began re-entry with the forward hatch taking the re-entry heating, until the connecting strut burned through. The Soyuz the righted itself with the heat shield taking the heating, but defaulted to an 8.6 G ballistic re-entry, landing 340 km short of the aim point at 10:36 GMT. Improved procedures after the ballistic re-entry of Soyuz TMA-1 meant a helicopter recovery crew reached the capsule only 20 minutes after thumpdown. However the true nature of the failure was concealed from the world until the same thing happened on Soyuz TMA-11.
  • 2007 October 10 - ISS EO-16. Following the deorbit burn at 07:40 GMT the aft service module of the Soyuz failed to separate and the spacecraft began re-entry in a reversed position, with the forward hatch taking the initial re-entry heating. As was the case with Soyuz 5 in 1970, the connections with the service module finally melted away, and the freed capsule righted itself aerodynamically with the heat shield taking the brunt of the re-entry heating. However the crew experienced a rough ride, a ballistic re-entry of over 8 G's force, smoke in the cabin, a failure of the soft landing system, and a very hard landing. They landed 470 km short of the target point at 50 deg 31" N, 61 deg 7" E at 08:29 GMT. A small grass fire was started at the landing point and the injured crew had to be helped from the capsule by passers-by. Malenchenko and Whitson suffered no permanent injury, but Yi was hit by Whitson's personal effects bag on impact and required physical therapy for neck and spine injuries.



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