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Tragedies in the Space Program




Space travel is inherently dangerous.  The inhospitable vacuum of outer space can find a thousand ways to kill a human being.  In spite of this, nobody has ever become lost in space.

Tragically, however, several astronauts and cosmonauts have perished during two of the most hazardous phases of space travel ... launch and reentry.  One crew, that of Apollo 1, did not even make it to the launch; their craft succumbed to fire during a preflight test on the pad.

On this page we memorialize the great men and women who paid the ultimate price for the pursuit of science and knowledge.

January 27, 1967


Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, commander
Edward H. White II, command pilot
Roger Chaffee, pilot

During preflight testing, in which the launch countdown was simulated while the three astronauts, fully suited, were sealed in the spacecraft, a fire started in the command module, probably beneath the commander's seat.  The fire spread rapidly due to the 100% oxygen that pressurized the cabin, and the astronauts were unable to evacuate in time.  They probably succumbed to the deadly fumes less than thirty seconds after the first call of "Fire!" from one of the astronauts.  The mission was given the honorific "Apollo 1" only after the tragic accident.


April 23-24, 1967


Vladimir M. Komarov

The Soyuz 1 capsule experienced a multitude of problems in orbit, including the loss of some thrusters, and a decision was made to end the mission ahead of schedule.  Soyuz was also experiencing orientation difficulties, and it looked as though the capsule would not survive the fiery reentry into Earth's atmosphere.  Ironically, the capsule made it through the reentry without disintegrating, but the ship was out of control and spinning wildly, and the main parachute's lines became tangled.  The reserve chute, when deployed, entangled with the main chute.  The capsule hit the ground at better than 400 m.p.h. and burst into flames; Komarov was killed.  He was 40 years old.



SOYUZ 11 (Salyut 1)
June 29, 1971


Georgi T. Dobrovolsky
Vladislav N. Volkov
Viktor I. Patsayev

Launched on June 6, 1971, Soyuz 11 fulfilled mission expectations satisfactorily, if imperfectly.  Upon reentry, however, a pressure equalization valve opened prematurely, depressurizing the cabin and suffocating the crew, none of whom were wearing pressure suits.  Dobrovolsky had just turned 43 years old, ironically on the day of the launch; Volkov was 35, and Patsayev had celebrated his 38th birthday in space on June 19.


Fifteen years elapsed between the loss of two cosmonauts during the reentry of Soyuz II and the tragic explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.  The latter was probably even more deeply felt than any space tragedy had been before then, due to the fact that Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was on board and died before ever getting a chance to experience outer space.


Challenger flight 51-L
Launch: January 28, 1986


Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Judith A. Resnik, Mission Specialist 1
Ellison S. Onizuka, Mission Specialist 2
Ronald E. McNair, Mission Specialist 3
Gregory B. Jarvis, Payload Specialist 1
Sharon "Christa" McAuliffe, Payload Specialist 2


Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, at an altitude of 46,000 feet and a distance of of 18 miles downrange, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven aboard.



Columbia flight STS-107
Launch: January 16, 2003


Rick Husband, commander 
Willie McCool, pilot 
David Brown, mission specialist 
Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist
Michael Anderson, payload commander
Laurel Clark, mission specialist
Ilan Ramon, payload specialist, Israel Space Agency


After a successful 16-day mission in space, the Space Shuttle Columbia was on its way back to Earth, scheduled for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:15 a.m. Eastern time.  The craft disintegrated during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, approximately 150 nautical miles high, killing all seven aboard.




Click here for my tribute to the Columbia seven

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