By Julian O’Connor, Chief Copy Editor
Image Credit: History Channel and Arlington National Cemetery for Horizons
Over the years since the start of the space program following World War Two, many missions have been planned, built, and launched into space. Some of those missions have failed: by exploding spectacularly on the launchpad, simply ceasing to function in the harsh environment of space, or otherwise failing to meet the mission objectives. Some of those were crewed missions, with abort procedures in place that successfully prevented human loss of life which – in my opinion — accomplishes the true main goal of any crewed mission: bringing everyone home alive. Today, however, we will be talking about those missions that did not.
The reason for this is on Jan. 26, 2023, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration held its Day of Remembrance, remembering all the fallen astronauts that gave their lives to further space exploration. This day is held every year in January and is particularly close to the anniversaries of America’s three greatest space tragedies: the Apollo 1 Fire on Jan 27, 1967; the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan 28, 1986; and the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia on Feb 1, 2003  .
The Apollo 1 Fire happened due to a series of engineering failures. Although the exact cause of the fire is unknown, when something sparked in the capsule on the launchpad during a full-scale launch dress rehearsal, the fire spread quickly throughout the pure oxygen atmosphere of the capsule. The three-hatch system that enabled egress from the capsule was too complicated for the astronauts and pad crew to open in time, especially choked by the smoke caused by improper ventilation. That incident led to the deaths of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee .
The Apollo capsule was later redesigned to be safer, without a pure oxygen atmosphere and with a much simpler hatch, and the Apollo program never had another fatality.
On April 24 of the same year, the Soviet Union had their first spaceflight fatality in active flight – the Soyuz 1 mission. Manned by Vladimir Komarov, the mission plagued by issues with the new spacecraft, culminating in the parachute not opening after reentering the atmosphere. Komarov was killed when the capsule impacted the ground at high speed.
On November 15 of that year, American astronaut Michael J. Adams was killed during an X-15 flight after an electrical and control problem leading to a spin, inverted dive, and eventual breakup of the vehicle.
The Soviet Union had the next spaceflight fatalities, the only three in space rather than the atmosphere. On June 30, 1971, the Soyuz 11 mission, carrying Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patasayev, and Vlaidslav Volkov, experienced a decompression after undocking from the Saluyt 1 space station and began to retrofire. The crew died from asphyxiation.
America had the next set of spaceflight fatalities, the first being the Space Shuttle Challenger. The shuttle carrying Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Elison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, and Dick Scobee, was launched against the advice of the engineers in unsafe temperatures. 73 seconds into the ascent, a leak from a solid rocket booster caused the external tank of the shuttle to explode, throwing Challenger into the airstream, where it broke up. Some of the crew did not die from the breakup, activating their emergency oxygen, however, they were killed upon impact when the cockpit hit the water .
The next spaceflight fatality also comes from the American space program, the Space Shuttle Columbia. Carrying Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon, Columbia disintegrated on reentry — a piece of the external tank’s foam had hit the wing on ascent — causing a crack that later allowed hot gas into the wing. This extreme heat caused structural failure in the wing, leading to a control failure and breakup in the vehicle .
There have been other incidences of fatal accidents relating to the space industry that have killed astronauts or cosmonauts during training – in total, eight other space explorers who we did not discuss here. There have also been incidents involving collateral damage in the Soviet Union.
Although NASA’s Day of Remembrance has passed this year, we can take some time to remember the people who gave their lives to advance space exploration – a field that has given us many of our modern comforts – and that many here at Embry-Riddle are personally connected to. For the engineering students here, we can investigate these failures to determine what went wrong and prevent their reoccurrence on vehicles we build in the future, or – as was the case in many failures – prevent ourselves from being unduly pressured by management into making bad decisions.
1: NASA.gov, Day of Remembrance [https://www.nasa.gov/specials/dor2023/#:~:text=In%202023%2C%20the%20Day%20of,on%20Feb.%201%2C%202003].
2: Space.com, NASA’s fatal Challenger launch still echoes through the agency today
Space.com, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery [https://www.space.com/apollo-11-astronaut-michael-collins-interment-arlington-national-ceremony]