Space exploration has always been a fascinating venture for mankind. Throughout history, man has always aspired to be among the stars and learn more about the universe. The space race in the mid-20th century saw some of the biggest achievements in this regard, beginning with the first man in space in 1961 and reaching its peak with the Moon landing in 1968. Today, a substantial chunk of the world’s economy depends on space technology and mankind’s further exploration of the unknown is pushing us a step closer to becoming interstellar beings. NASA is going back to the Moon with the upcoming Artemis space program and private space agencies like SpaceX have even bigger ambitions of colonising Mars.
Amid all these glorious achievements, mankind’s journey to space has, unfortunately, also been littered with accidents and failures that shook humanity. In the case of unmanned missions like Russia’s Luna 25 and India’s Chandrayaan 2, the loss is limited to equipment. However, we have even witnessed tragic incidents involving manned missions that have resulted in the loss of valuable lives.
While the early phase of the space race was full of such disappointing losses, we take a look at some of the most shocking failed space missions that truly shook the world.
Failed space missions and disasters that shook us all
Russia’s Roscosmos came under the global spotlight after it attempted to go back to the Moon with the Luna 25. Hailed as the successor to 1976’s Luna 24, the newest lander was conceptualised to mark the continuation of the Luna space program from the Soviet era. Luna 25 had an entirely new lander design and its primary goal was to practice a landing attempt on the Moon’s Southern pole. The landing date almost coincided with ISRO’s Chandrayaan 3 mission, a spacecraft with similar objectives.
Unlike the Chandrayaan 3 mission, however, the Luna 25 was a simple lunar lander with several scientific instruments onboard. It had a planned mission life of a year and was expected to beam back useful data. With a rather simple goal, the Luna 25 lifted off on August 10 2023 aboard the Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome.
After a successful lunar orbit insertion, the spacecraft was directed to start its main engines and push itself into an elliptical pre-landing orbit. Sadly, one of the thrusters misfired and the engine ran for a total of 127 seconds instead of the required 84 seconds. The orbit was compromised and the Luna 25 lander crashed onto the Moon’s surface.
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The Chandrayaan-2 was a crucial mission to ISRO and its failure was a setback to India’s ambitions of joining the elite club of countries that had landed on the Moon. Designed as a successor to the Chandrayaan-1, the Chandrayaan-2 went a step ahead with a lunar orbiter, a lunar lander called Vikram and a small rover called Pragyaan. The lander was designated to touch down gently near the southern pole of the Moon.
Chandrayaan-2 lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on July 22, 2019, atop the LVM3-M1 rocket. After a series of careful course corrections and a successful lunar orbit insertion, the lander detached successfully from the orbiter and continued its descent onto the Lunar surface. The lunar landing was supposed to be handled entirely by the onboard computers, with no intervention from Mission Control.
However, during its controlled descent stage, the Chandrayaan-2 lander suffered a technical glitch which initiated a chain reaction of trajectory and velocity-related issues. The spacecraft went down faster than the intended speed and crashed on the lunar surface upon impact. NASA’s LRO later discovered the debris field just 600 metres from the landing point. While this was heartbreaking for the space community and ISRO, the Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter was the redeeming factor in the mission.
In August 2023, ISRO is attempting another go at a lunar landing with the Chandrayaan-3 mission. The lander has now been modified to avoid the issues that Chandrayaan-2 faced and ISRO is confident of a successful landing this time.
NASA’s first of many Apollo missions was designed to carry on-ground tests of the space capsule ahead of the unmanned Apollo missions that would eventually reach the Moon in the later stages. The Apollo 1 mission, originally known as AS-204, would undergo testing on the ground and after the required modifications, would fly into a low Earth orbit mission propelled by the Saturn IB launch vehicle.
Unexpectedly, the Apollo 1 mission had faced a multitude of issues right from the beginning and NASA had to send back the Block 1 space capsule to NAA, its manufacturer, for numerous modifications. After a delayed launch timeline, the crew of the Apollo 1 mission was conducting a launch rehearsal test at the Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 on January 27, 1967. The crew, which consisted of Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee, was killed when a fire broke out inside the Command Module.
The death of the Apollo 1 crew sent shockwaves throughout the world. The Apollo mission was halted for months and after massive modifications to the safety systems onboard the Command Module, successive unmanned and manned missions were conducted.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the troubles for the Apollo space program. Which bring us to…
The disastrous beginning of the Apollo space program with the Apollo 1 incident was soon overshadowed by a list of successful missions, including the landmark Apollo 11 spacecraft that put mankind on the Moon. After an uneventful Apollo 12 that largely imitated Apollo 11’s objectives, Apollo 13 was designed to help with science experiments and bring back more geological samples from the lunar surface. Apollo 13’s crew consisted of Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module (CM) pilot Jack Swigert and Lunar Module (LM) pilot Fred Haise. Despite carrying extra weight at launch, the Apollo 13 mission flew off from its launch pad, without giving any hints of what was to come in the next few days.
En route to the Moon on the second day, trouble began after a routine oxygen tank stir ignited the faulty wire insulation, eventually rupturing the oxygen tanks on the Service Module. With low oxygen onboard, NASA and the crew had to cancel the Moon landing and shift all their focus to safely bringing back the astronauts home. The team had to tackle issues like managing power and oxygen levels, shortage of potable water, carbon dioxide levels and adjusting the flight path manually for re-entry. Despite the endless onslaught of issues, the Apollo 13 crew safely made it back to Earth and the mission is often referred to as a ‘successful failure’.
Fun fact: The failed space mission was the premise for the Oscar-nominated movie Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks.
STS-51 L Space Shuttle Challenger
The Space Shuttle has been one of the most impressive space vehicles to have serviced humanity in our lifetimes. Designed to carry large payloads to the International Space Station and low Earth orbits, NASA commissioned five orbiters in the 1980s. These space shuttles were often referred to as a space truck, hauling space cargo and a larger crew. However, during its stretched life, two of its orbiters were lost in what can be attributed as the deadliest failed space missions in history.
The first one was the disaster of 1986 that involved the Challenger Orbiter. The STS-51 mission was flying with a crew of seven astronauts when it exploded in its ascent stage, 73 seconds after its launch. Investigations later narrowed down the culprit to be the failed O-Rings on the shuttle’s starboard side Solid Rocket Booster (SRBs) that eventually led to the structural failure of the entire vehicle. The crew cabin was found a day later, along with the remains of the seven crew members, on the ocean floor.
The STS-51-L mission was an important milestone in NASA’s space program. It was supposed to carry the first civilian teacher to space and deploy a satellite. It was also the Challenger orbiter’s last mission before NASA decommissioned it.
Following the disaster, several safety measures were taken during the launch stage of future shuttle-based missions. However, the space shuttle program wasn’t done with its failed space missions.
STS-107 Space Shuttle Columbia
The STS-107 was the second ill-fated failed space mission involving the space shuttle Columbia. The mission was launched successfully on January 16 2003 and even completed all of its objectives as planned. For the entire period of 15 days, 22 hours, 20 minutes and 32 seconds, it performed a series of deployments and scientific experiments while in low Earth orbit. However, it was the re-entry procedure where the crew met its ill fate.
Once re-entry was initiated, the Columbia began to heat up uncontrollably, with one of its glider wings disintegrating, resulting in a total structural failure of the space shuttle. The extreme heat due to the friction from the Earth’s atmosphere and the loss of pressure resulted in the loss of all the crew members as well as most of the data heading back to Earth. Columbia’s burning remains were scattered across a wide debris field all over Texas.
Investigations later found that a part of the heat shield on the Columbia’s wings was damaged during the launch. During re-entry, the heat spread across the insides of the glider and eventually ended up damaging the spacecraft. Following the Columbia disaster, NASA doubled its efforts of checking the heat shield and other crucial safety systems prior to re-entry and ensured that the remaining shuttle missions didn’t result in any further loss of life.
The Soyuz space program was designed as an answer to NASA’s Apollo program, with the ultimate goal of putting Russia on the Moon. The Soyuz 1 mission was the first crewed spaceflight in the program, carrying cosmonaut Colonel Vladimir Komarov. The original objective of the mission was to rendezvous with the Soyuz 2 mission in Earth’s orbit and undergo an exchange of crew members. Sadly, none of it went as planned and it went on to become one of the saddest tales of failed space missions.
After a successful launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soyuz 1 spacecraft reported issues when its solar panel failed to deploy successfully. This was followed by a failure of the orientation detectors and the automatic stabilisation system. On the ground, the Soyuz 2’s mission goals were modified to carry out repairs while in orbit, but a thunderstorm at the Baikonur launch site affected the booster’s electrical systems and the mission was called off.
Soon after, the Soyuz 1 mission was called off after completing 18 orbits and it began its re-entry procedure. However, during the re-entry phase, the safety parachute failed to deploy and as a result, the Soyuz 1 was unable to slow down during its descent stage and hit the ground at 140kph. Komarov lost his life and was declared a national hero in the following months.
During the descent, several neighbouring radio stations had caught his radio transmission, claiming to have heard his ‘cry in rage’ against the poorly developed spacecraft. However, there’s no concrete evidence to support this claim.
After the Soyuz 1 disaster, several modifications were made to the Soyuz capsule. However, in the early 70s, the Soyuz space program faced another failed space mission that claimed the life of three Russian cosmonauts.
After NASA’s Apollo 11 mission that saw the first man on the Moon, the USSR revised its space goals, shifting them from lunar landings to building space stations in low Earth orbits. The Salyut-1 was the first one to be put in orbit and after the Soyuz 10 failed to dock with the station, the task was delegated to the Soyuz 11 crew, which consisted of Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev. The three men boarded the space station on June 7, 1971, and were able to complete their designated missions successfully.
Trouble came once they departed on June 29 1971 from the space station. During the re-entry procedure, the jettisoning of the service module with simultaneously exploding bolts damaged the breathing ventilation valve. The valve opened earlier than intended at a height of 168 km and as a result, there was an instant pressure loss in the cabin. Within 40 seconds of the pressure loss, all three cosmonauts had died. The bodies of the cosmonauts were discovered inside the Soyuz 11 after it landed on the ground.
After the tragic incident, the Soyuz spacecraft was redesigned to be safer and its passenger capacity was reduced to two. The astronauts now had to wear a pressure suit during the descent stage as well, which prevented such mishaps from happening again. A later redesign allowed space for three astronauts and the Soyuz has had a successful tenure since then, servicing the ISS’s transport requirements effectively and efficiently.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
– Which was the worst space disaster of all time?
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 is considered to be the worst space disaster of all time, killing all of its crew members within 73 seconds of its launch.
– Which has been the most expensive space mission?
NASA’s Space Shuttle Program is the most expensive space mission in history, costing a total of USD 209 billion.
– What happened to Apollo 1?
The Apollo 1 mission ended prematurely after its Command Module caught fire during an on-ground test, killing its crew on the launchpad.
(Hero and Featured Image Credits: Courtesy NASA via Unsplash)