Horrific Space Travel Disasters

Outer Space Gone Wrong:  Space Travel Disasters

According to Hollywood movies, outer space is a terrifying and dangerous place. It’s a strange mixture of darkness, hostile conditions, and the constant threat of extra-terrestrial attack. And that’s after battling the elements to get there in the first place.  Although romanticized by movies, did you know that the threat of space travel disasters are still very real.

Since Yuri Gargarin’s 1961 voyage through the stratosphere, 18 cosmonauts have been killed in four separate space missions. In America alone, of the 5 space shuttles built, 2 failed catastrophically during flight resulting in the deaths of all on board.

When you look at the facts and figures, it seems that spaceflight is every bit as treacherous as outer space itself.

Soyuz 1 Crash

space travel disasters - soyuz 1
Vladmir Komarov Image source SpaceFacts.de

April 24th 1967 saw the world’s first in-flight space death.

Soviet astronaut Vladimir Komarov died when the parachute of his capsule failed to open following atmospheric re-entry.

The capsule hit the ground at high speed, flattening the descent module and killing Komarov instantly.  You can see the descent capsule pictured below as a mangled mass of debris.

space travel disasters: soyuz 1 crash site
Soyuz 1 crash site. Image source SpaceRocketHistory.com

Soyuz 11

On the 30th of June, 1971 Soyuz 11 landed back on Soviet soil, following a groundbreaking mission during which the shuttle successfully occupied the world’s first true space station. As the shuttle made a perfect touchdown, there was no indication that anything was amiss.

The recovery cosmonauts were greeted with a horrific scene:  the lifeless bodies of the 3 crew members inside.

It later transpired that a cabin valve had accidentally opened during descent, causing rapid decompression that had killed the crew.

Eerily, it was found that 2 crew members had attempted to unstrap themselves in order to close the valve. An investigation later determined that if the crew had been provided with space suits, they would have survived.

Soyuz 11 space travel disasters
Soyuz 11 crew. Image credit Spacefacts.de


The Challenger tragedy is perhaps the most famous space travel disaster in history, made all the more poignant by the fact that one of the astronauts on board was a civilian teacher.   Christa Mc Auliffe had been sent on the mission so that she could teach lessons from outer space.

On January 28th 1986 Challenger broke up a mere 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all 7 on board. The calamity unfolded live on television as millions of people watched helplessly. Unfortunately, this included many school children who had tuned in to see the first teacher launched into space.

Challenger explosion By Kennedy Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The cause of the accident was found to be a simple failure: the O-ring seal on the rocket booster had become brittle in the freezing January temperatures.  They became so brittle that they caused the seal to fail.

Flames escaped from the booster and damaged the external fuel tank, resulting in the disintegration of the spacecraft as it was launched.


In another blow to the American space effort, on February 1st 2003, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on its return to Earth, resulting in the deaths of all 7 astronauts on board. Columbia had completed a successful 16 day mission in space.  The crew had spent 24 hours a day performing  science experiments in 2 shifts.

As Columbia approached earth, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. However, just before 9am, Mission Control detected some abnormal readings from the left side of the craft. As it re-entered the atmosphere, the shuttle broke up in the sky, again watched by millions of television viewers worldwide.

The catastrophe prompted NASA to suspend all space shuttle activity for over 2 years as it examined the cause. An investigation revealed that a piece of foam fell from the external tank. Upon falling, it breached the spacecraft’s wing and ultimately caused the space travel disaster.

It was not long before NASA was widely criticized. It was discovered that they had been aware of a problem with these particular foam components for years and had done nothing to resolve the issue.

Space travel disasters: Columbia crew
The STS-107 crew includes, from the left, Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA photo)

Other Spaceflight Related Deaths

Along with the 18 astronauts killed in space travel disasters, 1 other crash has resulted in the death of a cosmonaut. Though it isn’t considered to be an official spaceflight accident Michael J. Adams died when his X-15 craft crashed in 1967.

Adams had exceeded the altitude for a standard American spaceflight which was 50 miles (80 km) at the time, but hadn’t reached the internationally accepted 62 mile (100 km) level.  Therefore the validity of the crash as one of the “official” space travel disasters is disputed.

Apart from deaths in-flight, 13 people have died during training and test flights.

There’s no doubt that space travel is perilous. However, it isn’t until you look at the cold hard facts that the true level of risk becomes apparent.

Of the 430 cosmonauts who have traveled into space, 18 have died. That works out at a fatality rate of over 4%, which is high when you consider how seldom space travel actually occurs.

Life on Mars may be a long way off for us ordinary folks, but we better hope for major advances in space travel safety before we get there!

Interested in learning more? Watch this video on the 5 deadliest space travel disasters!