- Space travel is tricky work that takes careful calculations and even more careful actions when situations get tough.
- After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States entered a fierce competition with their Communist rivals for dominance in space.
- The ensuing space race was filled with many notable successes – including American astronauts walking and playing golf on the Moon .
- But the era was not without its failures, including some deadly catastrophes. These were something beyond imagination that recorded in history.
1. STS 51-L SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER :
- The space shuttle Challenger disaster that occurred on January 28, 1986, marked one of the most devastating days in the history of space exploration.
- Just over a minute after the space shuttle lifted off, a malfunction in the spacecraft’s O-rings—rubber seals that separated its rocket boosters—caused a fire to start that destabilized the boosters and spread up the rocket itself.
- The shuttle was moving faster than the speed of sound and quickly began to break apart.
- The disaster led to the deaths of all astronauts on board, including civilian Christa McAuliffe, a participant in NASA’s Teacher in Space project who was to teach classes and perform experiments while in space.
- The extended mission of the shuttle included deployment of satellites and the test of tools for studying astronomy and Halley’s Comet. The shuttle’s launch was not widely televised, but the explosion and breakup of the shuttle was visible to spectators on the ground.
- The disaster resulted in the temporary suspension of the space shuttle program and the creation of the Rogers Commission to determine the cause and fault of the disaster.
2. ISS Expedition 36: Water Leak in Astronaut’s Suit
- Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency, took on a bit of water as he was working outside of the International Space Station (ISS) on July 16, 2013.
- During a spacewalk on the 36th expedition to the ISS, Parmitano’s helmet began to unexpectedly fill with liquid, and, being in space, the water was free to float around his entire head, eventually making it impossible for him to hear or speak to the other astronauts.
- Though it might seem like the solution to Parmitano’s problem was obvious, alas, the water was not from a drinking bag but from a leak in a liquid coolant system and would not have been the safest thing to drink.
- Plus, imagine drinking water that is floating freely in the air—doesn’t seem so easy. The spacewalk continued for over an hour before he was back in the ISS and free from his wetsuit, completely unharmed but in need of a fresh towel (which he received promptly).
- The accident and subsequent cancellation of the spacewalk made it the second shortest spacewalk in the station’s history.
3. STS-107: Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster-2003
- After a 16-day mission, the veteran space shuttle Columbia (which made the shuttle program’s first flight in 1981) was reentering the Earth’s atmosphere ahead of a planned landing at Cape Canaveral when tragedy struck.
- The shuttle’s orbiter broke into pieces, raining debris over eastern Texas and killing all seven astronauts aboard.
- A small piece of insulating foam had broken loose from a fuel tank during launch and pierced Columbia’s left wing, but because the foam had detached during earlier shuttle launches without incident, NASA officials didn’t think it was a problem.
- Upon reentry, however, hot gases and smoke penetrated the damaged wing, causing it to break off and the rest of the shuttle to disintegrate.
- The Columbia disaster marked the beginning of the end of the U.S. space shuttle program; NASA would retire its last space shuttle in 2011.
4. Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: Poisonous Gas Leak
- The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July 1975 was a feat of both space travel and politics: it was the first joint U.S. and Soviet spaceflight and marked the end of the space race between the two countries.
- Bottle up all of the tension between these two superpowers, and there’s bound to be some mishap. Surprisingly, the mission itself went over almost flawlessly (until their returns).
- The two spacecraft—the American holding three astronauts and the Soviet two cosmonauts—met in orbit around the Earth and docked to each other, allowing the space explorers to travel between the vehicles.
- It was during reentry that a malfunction with the RCS, the reaction control system that controls altitude, caused poisonous nitrogen tetroxide to enter the cabin where the American Apollo astronauts were seated.
- Luckily, the cabin was ventilated once the spacecraft landed and none of the astronauts were fatally injured. They were rushed to a hospital and were found to have developed a form of chemically caused pneumonia, but all recovered within weeks.
5. Soyuz 11 – 1971
Eager to outstrip their counterparts in the U.S. space program after the success of the moon landings, the Russians launched the world’s first space station, Salyut-1, in April 1971.
That June, three cosmonauts aboard Soyuz 11 spent three weeks conducting experiments and observations at the space station, earning hero status back at home. Upon their return trip on June 30, the spacecraft made a normal reentry and a perfect (automatic) landing.
But when the ground team opened the hatch, they found all three cosmonauts unresponsive. A faulty air vent had opened when the orbital and descent modules of Soyuz 11 separated, and the cabin had depressurized.
The cosmonauts, none of whom were wearing space suits, likely suffocated to death 30 minutes before landing.
As a legacy of the Soyuz 11 disaster, the Soviet and U.S. space programs would pass requirements ensuring their cosmonauts and astronauts wear space suits during any phases of a mission where depressurization could possibly occur.
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