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Home > History & Science > Accidents of the Space Age

The history of space exploration has been marred by a number of tragedies that resulted in the deaths of the astronauts or ground crew. As of 2007, in-flight accidents have killed 18 astronauts, training accidents have claimed 11 astronauts, and launchpad accidents have killed at least 71 ground personnel. Here is a collection of some of the most notable of these accidents.

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Comments (3)

Your right. It's probably like an "interpretation" of what happened or something. I think that photo was passed around via email a couple of years ago as a hoax of the accident.

By muddbandit (2437) - Prophet | 25.04.10

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Still pic to the left of Columbia video is not a picture of Columbia, it's from a movie. Armageddon, I think? Anyway, it's definitely not a real picture of the accident.

By drewbert (0) - As Good As New | 25.04.10

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There seems to be a running theme here with the Soyuz missions....

By @francisfletcher (7570) - Prophet | 24.04.10

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1) Soyuz 1, 1967 (USSR)

Launched into orbit on April 23, 1967 carrying cosmonaut Colonel Vladimir Komarov, Soyuz 1 was the first flight of the Soviet Soyuz program. His one-day mission had been plagued by a series of mishaps with the new type of spacecraft. Problems began shortly after launch when one solar panel failed to unfold, leading to a shortage of power for the spacecraft's systems. Further problems with the orientation detectors complicated maneuvering the craft. By orbit 13, the automatic stabilization system was completely dead, and the manual system was only partially effective. This culminated in the capsule's parachute not opening properly after atmospheric re-entry. Komarov was killed when the capsule hit the ground. In the photograph below you can see what was left of his "body".

Soyuz 1

2) Space Shuttle Columbia, 2003 (USA)

The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster occurred on February 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in the death of all seven crew members, shortly before it was scheduled to conclude its 28th mission, STS-107. The loss of Columbia was a result of damage sustained during launch when a piece of foam insulation the size of a small briefcase broke off the Space Shuttle external tank (the main propellant tank) under the aerodynamic forces of launch. The debris struck the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the Shuttle's thermal protection system (TPS), which protects it from heat generated with the atmosphere during re-entry. While Columbia was still in orbit, some engineers suspected damage, but NASA managers limited the investigation, on the grounds that little could be done even if problems were found.

space accident

3) Space Shuttle Challenger, 1986 (USA)

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida, United States, at 11:39 a.m. EST. Disintegration of the entire vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces promptly broke up the orbiter.

Space Shuttle Challenger

4) Soyuz 11, 1971 (USSR)

Soyuz 11 was the first successful visit to the world's first space station, Salyut 1. However the mission ended in disaster when the crew capsule depressurised during preparations for re-entry, killing the three-man crew. This accident resulted in the only deaths to occur in space (as opposed to high atmosphere). The crew members aboard Soyuz 11 were Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev. On June 30, 1971, after an apparently normal re-entry of the capsule of the Soyuz 11 mission, the recovery team opened the capsule to find the crew dead. It quickly became apparent that they had been asphyxiated. The fault was traced to a breathing ventilation valve, located between the orbital module and the descent module, that had been jolted open as the descent module separated from the service module, 723 seconds after retrofire.

Soyuz 11

5) Apollo Soyuz Test Project, 1975 (USA/USSR)

During final descent and parachute deployment for the Apollo Soyuz Test Project Command Module, the U.S. crew were exposed to 300 µL/L of toxic nitrogen tetroxide gas (RCS fuel) venting from the spacecraft and reentering a cabin air intake. A switch was left in the wrong position. 400µL/L is fatal. Vance Brand's heart stopped and was narrowly resuscitated. The crew members suffered from burning sensations of their eyes, faces, noses, throats and lungs. Thomas Stafford quickly broke out emergency oxygen masks and put one on Brand and gave one to Deke Slayton. The crew were exposed to the toxic gas from 24,000 ft (7.3 km) down to landing. About an hour after landing the crew developed chemical-induced pneumonia and their lungs had edema. They experienced shortness of breath and were hospitalized in Hawaii. The crew spent two weeks in the hospital. By July 30, their chest X-rays appeared to return to normal.

Apollo–Soyuz Test Project

6) Soyuz 23, 1976 (USSR)

After re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere for the Soyuz 23 manned spacecraft, it landed in the partially frozen Lake Tengiz, the first splashdown in the Soviet space program. The parachute quickly filled with water and dragged the capsule and its crew beneath the surface. The capsule cooled in the freezing water, and the cosmonauts removed their pressure suits and donned their normal flight suits, expecting a quick rescue. But the capsule's beacons could not be seen in the heavy fog, and rubber rafts used to try to reach them were blocked by ice and sludge. The cosmonauts were safe, but they were low on power, so they were forced to shut down everything but a small interior light. The next morning, frogmen were dropped in by helicopters, attached flotation devices to the Soyuz craft and recovered the crew. The capsule was too heavy to be lifted by the helicopter, so it was dragged to shore. The recovery operation had taken nine hours.

soyuz 23

7) Nedelin catastrophe, 1960 (USSR)

The Nedelin catastrophe (so-called because Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin was killed) was a launch pad accident that occurred on 24 October 1960, at Baikonur Cosmodrome during the development of the Soviet R-16 ICBM. As a prototype of the missile was being prepared for a test flight, it exploded on the launch pad when its second stage motors ignited prematurely, killing many military personnel, engineers, and technicians working on the project. The official death toll was 90, but estimates are as high as 150, with 120 being the generally accepted figure. Despite the magnitude of the disaster, news of it was covered up for many years and the Soviet government did not acknowledge the event until 1989. Strategic Rocket Forces Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, the commander of the R-16 development program, was among those killed in the explosion and fire.

Nedelin catastrophe

8) Intelsat 708, 1996 (China)

Intelsat 708 was a telecommunications satellite built by the American company Space Systems/Loral intended to be launched into a geostationary orbit and operated by Intelsat. It was destroyed during a launch failure on February 15, 1996, causing fatalities near the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at Xichang, People's Republic of China, and prompting political controversy around the world. The Intelsat 708 satellite was to be launched aboard a Long March 3B rocket. This rocket failed at launch due to an engineering defect and crashed into a village near the launch site, which reportedly killed an unknown number of Chinese civilians and caused other damage. The nature and extent of the damage remain a subject of dispute; the Chinese government, through its official Xinhua news agency, reported that six people were killed and 57 injured. Neutral sources claimed that the number of fatalities was likely to number in the thousands and possibly tens of thousands.

Intelsat 708

9) Alcântara VLS accident, 2003 (Brazil)

On August 22, 2003, at 13:30 (local time) an explosion destroyed a Brazilian Space Agency VLS-1 (VLS-1 V03) rocket as it stood on its launch pad at the Alcântara Launching Center in the state of Maranhão in northern Brazil. Twenty-one people, standing on the launch pad, died when one of the rocket's four first stage motors ignited accidentally. The explosion caused a fire in the nearby jungle brush, and produced a large cloud of smoke that was visible for large distances. This was the third major attempt by Brazil to launch a rocket of the country's own design. The explosion leveled the rocket's launch pad, reducing a 10-story high structure to a pile of twisted metal. Dozens of kilometers away, residents of the city of São Luís were able to hear the blast. The rocket had been scheduled to launch in just a few days' time and had two satellites onboard when the explosion occurred.

Alcântara VLS accident

10) Michael J. Adams, X-15 rocket plane, 1967 (USA)

Michael J. Adams died while piloting a North American X-15 rocket plane. Major Adams was a U.S. Air Force pilot in the NASA/USAF X-15 program. During X-15 Flight 191, his seventh flight, the plane first had an electrical problem and then developed control problems at the apogee of its flight. The pilot may also have become disoriented. During re-entry from a 266,000 ft (50.4 mile, 81.1 km) apogee, the X-15 yawed sideways out of control and went into a spin at a speed of Mach 5, from which the pilot never recovered. Excessive acceleration led to the X-15 breaking up in flight at about 65,000 feet. Adams was posthumously awarded astronaut wings as his flight had passed an altitude of 50 miles (80.5 km) (the U.S. definition of space).

Michael J. Adams
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