Mission Disasters

Missions that failed and lives that were lost

As of 2016, there have been 18 astronaut and cosmonaut fatalities during spaceflight. Astronauts have also died while training for space missions, such as the Apollo 1 launch pad fire which killed an entire crew of three. There have also been some non-astronaut fatalities during spaceflight-related activities.

NASA astronauts who died on duty are memorialized at the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Merritt Island, Florida. Cosmonauts who died on duty under the Soviet Union were generally honored by burial at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in Moscow. No Soviet or Russian cosmonauts have died during spaceflight since 1971.

Four fatal in-flight accidents have occurred on missions which were considered spaceflights under the internationally accepted definition of the term, as well as one on the ground during rehearsal of a planned flight. In each case, all crew were killed. To date, no individual member of a multi-member crew has died during a mission or rehearsal.

The following details are related to shuttle disasters but a more detailed account of mission failures and fatalities can be found on this wikipedia link : Space Related Accidents.

Challenger - January 28th, 1986


NASA's Shuttle program was begun in the 1970s, to create reusable craft for transporting cargo into space. Previous space craft could only be used once, then were discarded. The first shuttle, Columbia was launched in 1981. One year later, the Challenger rolled off the assembly line as the second shuttle of the US fleet. They were followed by Discovery in 1983 and Atlantis in 1985.

Shuttle mission 51L was much like most other missions. The Challenger was scheduled to carry some cargo, the Tracking Data Relay Satellite-2 (TDRS-2), as well as fly the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203)/Halley's Comet Experiment Deployable, a free-flying module designed to observe tail and coma of Halley's comet with two ultraviolet spectrometers and two cameras. One thing made this mission unique. It was scheduled to be the first flight of a new program called TISP, the Teacher In Space Program. The Challenger was scheduled to carry Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space. Selected from among more than 11,000 applicants from the education profession for entrance into the astronaut ranks.

The Core

Besides McAuliffe, the Challenger crew consisted of mission commander Francis R. Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; and payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis. Christa was also listed as a payload specialist. From the beginning, though, Shuttle Mission STS-51L was plagued by problems. Liftoff was initally scheduled from at 3:43 p.m. EST on January 22, 1986. It slipped to Jan. 23, then Jan. 24, due to delays in mission 61-C and finally reset for Jan. 25 because of bad weather at transoceanic abort landing (TAL) site in Dakar, Senegal. The launch was again postponed for one day when launch processing was unable to meet new morning liftoff time.

Predicted bad weather at Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) caused the launch to be rescheduled for 9:37 a.m. EST, Jan. 27, but it was delayed another 24 hours when ground servicing equipment hatch closing fixture could not be removed from orbiter hatch. The fixture was sawed off and an attaching bolt drilled out before closeout completed. During this delay, the cross winds exceeded limits at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility. There as a final delay of two hours when a hardware interface module in the launch processing system, which monitors fire detection system, failed during liquid hydrogen tanking procedures. The Challenger finally lifted off at 11:38:00 a.m. EST. Seventy three seconds into the mission, the Challenger exploded, killing the entire crew.

The Core

Later, a commision was set up by then president Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. This commision included former astronaut Neil Armstrong and former test pilot Chuck Yeager. The commission's report cited the cause of the disaster as the failure of an “O-ring” seal in the solid-fuel rocket on the Space Shuttle Challenger's right side. The faulty design of the seal coupled with the unusually cold weather, let hot gases to leak through the joint. Booster rocket flames were able to pass through the failed seal enlarging the small hole. These flames then burned through the Space Shuttle Challenger's external fuel tank and through one of the supports that attached the booster to the side of the tank. That booster broke loose and collided with the tank, piercing the tank's side. Liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuels from the tank and booster mixed and ignited, causing the Space Shuttle Challenger to tear apart. The connision also noted that officials at NASA were also to blame as they ignored previous warnings voiced by NASA engineers. The entire space shuttle program was grounded during the Space Shuttle Challenger Commission's investigation and did not resume flying until shuttle designers made several technical modifications and NASA management implemented stricter regulations regarding quality control and safety. Shuttle missions resumed on September 28, 1988, with the flight of the shuttle Discovery.

Columbia - February 1st, 2003


Space Shuttle Columbia (Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-102) was the first space-rated orbiter in NASA's Space Shuttle fleet. It launched for the first time on mission STS-1 on April 12, 1981, the first flight of the Space Shuttle program. Over 22 years of service it completed 27 missions before disintegrating during re-entry near the end of its 28th mission, STS-107 on February 1, 2003, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members.

Consequently, President Bush decided to retire the Shuttle orbiter fleet by 2010 in favor of the Constellation program and its manned Orion spacecraft. The Constellation program was later cancelled with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 signed by President Obama on October 11.

The chaotic final moments of the doomed space shuttle Columbia have been detailed in a report by NASA.

The shuttle disintegrated over Texas on February 1, 2003, as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere with a hole in its left wing. The NASA report reveals that when the first of many alarms sounded, the astronauts had about a minute to live, but did not know it.

List of crew members:

  • Rick D. Husband - Commander
  • William C. McCool - Pilot
  • Michael P. Anderson
  • David M. Brown
  • Kalpana Chawla
  • Laurel Clark
  • Ilan Ramon - first Israeli in space

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, 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.

7-8 minutes before the failure, gauges started to loose readings in Columbia's left wing, left landing gear brake system and tyre.

7.59am (CST) temperature and pressure gauges went off scale.

8am - All vehicle data was lost at 207,135 ft above the Earth at Mach 18.3 (about 12,500 mph) when the Columbia Space Shuttle broke up over north-central Texas. It was about 16 minutes prior to its scheduled landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The last communication from Houston ground control to Columbia commander Rick Husband was: "To Columbia, here is Houston; we see your tyre pressure messages and we did not copy your last message." After a moment, Husband replied: "Roger but ..." After a brief crackling noise, contact was lost. The Space Shuttle Columbia was scheduled to land 8.16am (2.16GMT). In an address to the nation on Saturday 1st at 4.45 EST, President George W. Bush confirmed the space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven were lost after the Orbiter broke up during reentry on its landing approach to the Kennedy Space Center.

Mission Facts