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Lessons Learned from Destroyed Spacecraft

written by: johnsinit•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 7/10/2010

Destroyed spacecraft such as the Soyuz 1, Challenger and Columbia have taught spacecraft engineers much about risk levels involved with space flight, Scientists have picked apart every detail of the accidents, and have learned much about the unique risks attendant to the world’s space programs.

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    Casualties of Manned Space Flight

    Manned space missions have unfortunately resulted in 22 astronaut deaths in spacecraft since 1967. One Soviet cosmonaut died on Soyuz 1. One American died on an X-15-3 spaceplane flight, and three died in the Apollo 1 fire. Seven astronauts in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and seven more on the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. Three Soviets died on Soyuz 11. That makes 18 NASA astronauts and 4 Russian cosmonauts who died in destroyed spacecraft.

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    First Accident - Apollo One

    January 27, 1967 was the day of a fire in the cabin that killed the Apollo 1 crew as they rehearsed their launch sequence for a scheduled February 21 launch. The fire was caused by an electrical fault, and spread rapidly in the pure oxygen atmosphere. Killed were Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Edward White II. This was first space-related accident, but it actually happened on the ground. The Apollo 1 disaster resulted in many changes and redesigns after a number of hazards were identified in the review. The cabin atmosphere at launch was changed from 100% oxygen to 60% oxygen and 40% nitrogen at sea level pressure. The hatch was redesigned to open outward quickly using a pressurized nitrogen cartridge. Flammable materials were replaced by self-extinguishing ones, and plumbing and wiring were protected with insulation, and the crew suits were replaced with ones made from non-flammable, melt-resistant cloth.Apollo One Crew 

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    First Russain Disaster

    On April 24, 1967, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died when the parachute on the reentry capsule of Soyuz 1 failed to open and the capsule crashed at high speed into the ground. Komarov, though, is regarded as the first an killed in space.Vladimir Komarob Funeral at the Kremlin Wall 

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    Two More Accidents

    November 15, 1967 was the day Michael J. Adams died flying an X-15 rocket plane. It was his seventh flight, and the plane developed electrical and control problems at the flight’s apogee. During reentry the craft went into an irrecoverable spin at Mach 5, causing it to break apart at 65,000 feet.

    On June 30, 1971 the Soyuz 11 crew died after a valve on their spacecraft opened accidentally when the service module separated from the Salyut 1 space station, exposing the crew to the vacuum of space. The spacecraft wasn't destroyed, but landed safely and it wasn’t until the spacecraft was analyzed later that the valve problem was discovered.

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    The Events That Shocked The World - Challenger and Columbia

    January 28, 1986 is a day that shocked America when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off, killing the crew of seven. Analysis showed that an o-ring seal malfunctioned and allowed hot gas from the solid rocket booster to weaken the external fuel tank as well as the strut holding the booster to the tank, which disintegrated and exploded. Challenger Explosion February 1, 2003 was the date that the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry after a two-week mission. The spacecraft broke apart after damage to its thermal protective system. It was later determined that a piece of insulation foam broke from the external tank during the launch and hit the craft’s wing. All seven crew members died, and pieces of the destroyed spacecraft were strewn over parts of Texas.

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    Lessons Learned From the Latest Space Accidents

    From the 1986 Challenger disaster, the destroyed spacecraft taught NASA and the world that one poorly designed seal could bring down an entire spacecraft. It was redesigned, as were the solid rocket boosters. After the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA quickly grounded the entire fleet after foam fell from the tank of the shuttle Discovery during the first flight after Columbia. Some people contend that the main thing NASA learned was that managers should pay more attention to the engineers on the line when they point to potential problems.