Want to stay on top of all the space news? Follow @universetoday on TwitterIt is only natural to think that space travel is risky and dangerous. There is the fact people are being launched at speeds of up to Mach 12 or higher on the end of a rocket. The danger doesn’t even end there. It only becomes truly perilous when the space craft leaves the atmosphere. Space is a near perfect vacuum that would kill any living thing exposed within a couple of minutes. Any leak in a spacecraft could mean disaster. Even with all these dangers, the real number of space disasters are astronomically known. For the two most proflic space programs, there have only been 4 in total incidents.
The Russian Space program has a long storied history. Many of the concepts of space exploration now used were made by early russian scientists and later perfected under the Soviet Program. However the political aspect of achieving firsts in space caused research to be rushed faster than it should have. The first major space disaster for the Russian Space Program was the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov in the Soyuz 1 incident. The reentry parachute was not properly tested and failed to deploy on the soyuz capsule. The capsule crashed at high speeds killing the cosmonaut instantly. The second major Soviet incident was the only space fatality in history to date. On June 30, 1971 the 11th Soyuz mission looked to be coming to a successful conclusion. However, the undocking process broke a critical seal in the capsule leading to the crew of three dying due to depressurization.
NASA is the other prolific space program to experience space related incidents. The first and most famous is the 1986 challlenger disaster. This involved the space shuttle which like the Soyuz capsule has a long history of reliablity and safety. A failure in the rings holding the solid rocket boosters allowing hot gases to escape leading to the break up the external tank and the tilting inwards of on one the booster rockets. This caused the entire space craft to tilt in to the air stream and subsequently break up and kill the crew of 7 making it the first major disaster of its kind in the history of U.S. space exploration. The final U.S. disaster is the most recent. This was the 2003 Columbia disaster. Like the Challenger the Columbia was a space shuttle that broke up in the atmosphere. In this instance it occured upon reentry. This was due to a piece of insulation breaking off and damaging the leading edge of one of its wings. The damage caused the eventual break up of the craft.
While rare each incident made the Soviet and NASA space agencies to reevaluate their programs and make needed changes. The disasters also demonstrated the deadly price exacted by haste in space exploration. In all cases the causes were factors taht could easily be fixed and prevented.
If you’d like more information on space disasters, here’s a link to Wikipedia’s spaceflight-related accidents and incidents, and here’s a link to the Challenger STS 51-L Accident page.
We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.