The 50-year anniversary of the first fatal tragedy in the American space program helps focus us on the positive that has come out of it all: a technological revolution.
Coincidentally, the two other space disasters in the U.S. manned space program all occur in the same, darkest week of NASA.
There is so much in our 21st Century that we owe to the 1960s Space Race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. This spawned the Moon rivalry, won by America and then abandoned for the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle. Today, China says they are determined to return humans to the Moon: America, Russia and Japan are also making vague plans.
Now after six decades as a space-faring civilization, the handful of space disasters by both America were quickly overcome and have resulted in an incredible safety record during the 10-year construction and 15 year of continuous occupancy of the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).
Russia, too, has had its share of fatal setbacks. It also quickly recovered from two deadly missions in the early days of their three-man Soyuz spaceship. The SUV-sized capsule has gone through three generations of upgrades over 50 years of operation. And the Soyuz-MS is the only spaceship available in 2017 to ferry astronauts to the ISS.
NASA is developing their 4-6 person Orion spaceship, which looks like the Apollo capsule. It is 3-5 years away from launch. Also trying to develop manned spacecraft in the next five years are Space X and its ship called Dragon; Orbital Science with Cygnus; and Blue Origin’s New Shepard. All are 5-10 years from becoming a reality, fraught with the unique dangers of space travel.
The space disasters of the old Soviet Union cost them the Moon Race when their gigantic rocket booster, called the N-1, blew up three times, once on the launch pad—killing dozens of their top rocket scientists. This was Top Secret stuff in the 1960s, known only by Department of Defense spy satellite imagery and sensors.
The incredible disasters, and many details of the Soviet space program, were not confirmed to the public until the 1990s—30 years later. That’s when cosmonauts and astronauts began training together for the Shuttle/Mir Space station missions in Houston and Moscow. And, well, people everywhere talk!
The two fatal space disasters of the U.S.S.R. occurred in the early days of their Soyuz spacecraft, each accident providing a brutal lesson in the dangers of conquering the unforgiving outer space environment.
The three American space fatalities and two Russian ones all occurred in Earth atmosphere:
- Apollo 1 had a flash fire inside the spacecraft that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee while rehearsing on the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1967. A spark in the pure oxygen atmosphere ignited combustibles, suffocating the astronauts struggling to open the complicated hatch. The Apollo module inside was completely redesigned and proved reliable as 15 were flown on successful missions.
- Soyuz 1 was cussed at as the “Devil Ship” by its lone cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, as he knew the orbiting spacecraft was at the wrong angle and in peril during reentry. Break downs in major spacecraft systems doomed the maiden voyage of the spacecraft from the start. Komarov, the first person to fly in space twice (Voskhod 1) had openly criticized the flight worthiness of his spaceship. His ashes are interred in the Kremlin Wall.
- Soyuz 11 ended with the death of three cosmonauts when a valve cracked opened one-sixteenth of an inch during reentry, caused by a pyro blast of separating modules. Quietly asphyxiated as air escaped were Georgy Dobrovalsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev. That was June 30, 1971. They had just spent a month on the world’s first space station,Salyut 1.
- Challenger and the entire Space Shuttle system were destroyed just 70 seconds into launch when the right side solid rocket booster sprung a leak, the hot fire ripping through the segmented section and then crashing into the Orbiter and the huge, orange External Fuel tank. Seven American astronauts died in front of a television audience that mid-morning of Jan. 28, 1986. Forever remembered across the country in the names of streets, schools and science centers: Dick Scobee, Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnick and teacher-in-space, Christa McAuliffe.
- Columbia, the flagship of the Space Shuttle fleet, was destroyed the 28th time it reentered from a successful mission on Feb. 1, 2003. A hole in its left wing ripped the spaceship apart at 30,000 mph and 7 miles above Texas. Like Salyut 11, the seven astronauts performed flawlessly in a 16-day science mission aboard a Space Lab in the cargo bay. Columbia’s hole was punched by a suitcase-sized chunk of insulation foam on the outside of the orange, External Tank, filled hydrogen and oxygen fuel, -200 F. degrees below zero. The three-foot hole went undetected, and the astronauts died, not know knowing what happened or why. They were: Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first spaceman.
Those are the 21 astronaut/cosmonaut pioneers who died, all because of human errors in their spaceship.
But there are a dozen or more who have been killed while on active spaceflight status, including seven NASA astronauts killed in flying accidents or car crashes.
The most famous of those are the prime crew of Gemini 9, Elliott See and Charles Bassett. On Feb. 28, 1966, they were flying a T-38 jet front-seat, back-seat and landing during a storm at the air strip at the St. Louis aerospace factory constructing their spaceship. The jet clipped the very building at the McDonnell plant manufacturing the Gemini 9 and 10 spaceships, and the astronauts were killed in the crash.
Watching in horror from another astronaut T-38 taxi behind them were back-up crew Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan. They carried out the Gemini 9 mission in June 1966.
World hero and first man in space Yuri Gagarin was also killed in a training jet crash when his MiG-15 washed-out in a tail spin caused by another passing jet. That’s according to Soviet space hero Alexi Leonov, the first spacewalker, who had a close call on his historic 1965 mission.
Close calls were the growing pains of exploring the unknowns of outer space. There were plenty that were certainly underplayed by NASA, and all Russian mishaps were swept under the rug by the Soviets.
The Apollo 13 rescue in April 1970—just before the three astronauts ran out of air and energy needs!—was a small miracle.
Another lucky break was the ability of Neil Armstrong to stop the once per second, end-over-end tumble of 4-ton Gemini 8 (caused by a stuck thruster) just seconds before he and mission-mate David Scott passed out from the centrifugal force.
Scott Carpenter’s Mercury spacecraft overshot by 250-miles its Pacific Ocean target after a 3-orbit, 5 hour flight. His whereabouts went unknown for about an hour, and he waited three hours in a lifeboat next to his floating spaceship until rescued by ship.
The USSR widely exaggerated their space successes, and lied about their failures. Many unmanned tests of their moonship, Zond, were referred to as “Cosmos” missions; the name the Russians gave most of their satellites regardless of their purpose to confuse the Western space watchers.
In the early decades of the 21st Century, China has begun an anticipated dominance of Earth orbit by making calculated steps in building small space stations and testing the abilities of their spaceships and “taikonauts.”
Meanwhile, America, Russia, Europe and Japan are winding down the commitments of their two-decade cooperation, the $200 billion International Space Station. Each space-faring nation wants to go their own way.
Humans in outer space are serious business. After six decades of manned exploration, we are lucky that the only fatalities have occurred during the blast off and the fiery reentry.
Nobody has been left for dead in space or the Moon. Not yet. But as we push outward off Earth into the space frontier, fatalities are inevitable.
Let’s put that off as long as possible.