World Facts

Worst Spaceflight Disasters In History

The 2003 Columbia Disaster that claimed the lives of seven astronauts reminded the world of the dangerous nature of space travel.

The mysteries of outer space have drawn the curiosity of humans since the beginning of time. In 1957, Russia was the first country to send a satellite into space and then in 1961, became the first country to send a person to orbit Earth. This goal of reaching space became a competition between the US and Russia. Despite the many successes of the space exploration programs in these countries, they have also experienced some very terrible tragedies. This article inspects some of the worst spaceflight-related accidents in history.

February 1, 2003 - Space Shuttle Columbia

Space Shuttle Columbia took off at 8:15 a.m. on February 1, 2003, under the command of Rick Husband and pilot William McCool. Around 8:51 a.m. the shuttle began to overheat. This incident occurred because a piece of foam had fallen off the fuel tank during takeoff, tearing a hole in the wing and heatshield. All seven astronauts on board were killed. This tragedy led to the decision that all space shuttle missions would only travel to the International Space Station. In 2011, all space shuttles were retired.

January 28, 1986 - Space Shuttle Challenger

Space Shuttle Challenger took off from Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986. The cold, winter temperatures caused an O-ring seal to break, leaking hot gas onto the external propellant tank. The space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. Some of the astronauts initially survived until the cockpit made an impact with the water. The seven astronauts were all killed, including the school teacher Christa McAuliffe. The Space Shuttle Challenger and the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedies have been the worst spaceflight-related accidents in history.

January 27, 1967 - Apollo 1

In the Apollo 1 mission on January 27, 1967, three astronauts were killed. This event was intended to be training practice for a future launch. This Saturn rocket was not filled with fuel. The astronauts entered and immediately began experiencing problems. The first issue was a sour odor, followed by the report of a fire in the cockpit. Seventeen seconds later, the fatalities occurred. It was an electrical fire that spread rapidly in the 100% oxygen air.

June 6, 1971 - Soyuz 11

The Soyuz 11 mission is remembered as the only spaceflight-related event that ended in fatality in outer space. The Soyuz 11's Russian exploration team took off on June 30, 1971, and landed at the space station Salyut 1 for a 22-day stay during which they performed a number of research projects. When the mission undocked, a cabin vent valve was unknowingly opened. The oxygen in the cabin leaked out 30 minutes before the planned landing, causing the three astronauts on board to die of high-altitude decompression. Studies of the accident have indicated that their lives could have been spared if they had been wearing space suits.

March 27, 1968 - Soyuz 3

This Russian training flight took the lives of 2 astronauts. According to news reports of recently declassified Russian documents, the pilot of this fighter jet took a sharp maneuver to avoid a weather balloon. This move caused the jet to crash in the Vladimir region near Moscow.

February 28, 1966 - Gemini 9

This accident involved the deaths of the command pilot and pilot. They were flying a T-38 jet trainer to the McDonnell Aircraft plant in St. Louis, Missouri. Here, the two were going to participate in a 2-week simulator training. Bad weather conditioned caused poor visibility, and the pilots flew too close to the ground.

March 23, 1961

In this accident, Russian cosmonaut trainee Valentin Bondarenko was killed. This was the first spaceflight-related death in history. He was taking part in a 15-day low-pressure altitude experiment. The chamber had a 50% oxygen atmosphere, and the trainee dropped a piece of alcohol-soaked fabric on a hot electric hotplate. He died in the hospital of third-degree burns.

October 31, 1964

Theodore Freeman, a US NASA astronaut and pilot, was killed on his way to the Ellington Air Force Base in Texas. During the flight, a goose flew into the cockpit canopy, breaking Plexiglas. Pieces of Plexiglas flew into the engine intake, stopping both motors. The pilot ejected from the aircraft but was too close to the ground for proper parachute function.

October 5, 1967

A T-38 jet was being flown from Cape Kennedy, Florida to Houston, Texas. American pilot Clifton Williams was forced to eject due to a mechanical failure. Unfortunately, he was too close to the ground, and his parachute was unable to open correctly. He died just north of Tallahassee, Florida.

December 8, 1967

During this spaceflight training mission, American astronaut Robert Lawrence was killed. He was the first African-American astronaut from the country and acting as co-pilot during this flight. His F-104 Starfighter jet crashed while practicing high velocity, rapid descent landings. The pilot survived the accident, but Lawrence’s parachute was found unopened.

April 24, 1967- Soyuz 1

The Russian program Soyuz was initiated with the launching of Soyuz 1. Cosmonaut Colonel Vladimir Komarov was selected to control the new spacecraft. Nine minutes after takeoff, the mission began reporting problems and by the second orbit of the earth, a solar panel failed to open. This panel was crucial as it provided half the spacecraft’s power. During the fifth orbit, the cosmonaut began kicking the side panel to open the solar panel. His efforts failed, and a rescue team was sent on the Soyuz 2 spacecraft. Unfortunately, an electrical storm interfered with launching, and the mission was canceled. The Soyuz 1 pilot decided to manually re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Upon reentry, Komarov deployed his parachute, which failed to open. The backup parachute became tangled. He was killed during impact in the Southern Ural Mountains.

July 11, 1993

This incident was a Soviet water recovery training program. Cosmonaut Sergei Vozovikov, a member of the Soviet Air Force Cosmonaut Training Group 11, drowned in the Black Sea during the training program.

October 31, 2014 - VSS Enterprise

The VSS Enterprise was the only Scaled Composite Model SpaceShipTwo vehicle. The spacecraft had been flown on several occasions prior to this accident with reports of engine issues in 2012 and 2013. This particular test flight took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, attached to its carrier aircraft, the WhiteKnightTwo. It was released from the carrier and piloted by Michael Alsbury and Peter Siebold. Eleven seconds after being dropped, the vehicle broke apart when its air-braking decent mechanism activated too early. Michael Alsbury was killed in the crash.

The Worst Spaceflight Related Disasters In History

RankDateIncidentMissionFatalities
11 February, 2003Vehicle disintegration on re-entry – Space Shuttle Columbia disasterSTS-107 Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon
228 January, 1986Vehicle disintegration during launch – Space Shuttle Challenger disasterSTS-51-L Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee
327 January 1967Fire during spacecraft testApollo 1Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White, Roger Chaffee
46 June, 1971DecompressionSoyuz 11 Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov
527 March 1968Training jet crashSoyuz 3Yuri Gagarin Vladimir Seryogin
628 February 1966Training jet crashGemini 9Elliot See Charles Bassett
723 March 1961Fire in altitude chamberValentin Bondarenko
831 October 1964Training jet crashTheodore Freeman
95 October 1967Training jet crashClifton C. Williams
108 December 1967Training jet crashRobert Lawrence
111967-04-24Parachute failureSoyuz 1 Vladimir Komarov
1211 July 1993Drowned during water recovery trainingSergei Vozovikov
1331 October 2014Spaceship crash during test flightMichael Alsbury

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