Neil Armstrong once said, “Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” That wonder of outer space and the unknown has driven astronauts such as Armstrong to risk their lives to explore the unknown and bring new knowledge to mankind. But for all their triumphs, the American and Russian space programs have suffered several defeats—some disastrous and some even fatal.
X-15 Flight 3-65-97
On November 15, 1967, Michael J. Adams undocked his X-15 from the wing of its NB-52B mother ship, 13,700 meters (45,000 ft) above Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. This was Adams’s seventh flight in the small, experimental aircraft designed for high-altitude research, and it would unfortunately turn out to be his last.
As Adams engaged full thrust, the aircraft ascended, reaching speeds above 5,000 kilometers (3,000 mi) per hour. After a few minor hiccups caused by an electrical disturbance, it reached a peak altitude of 81,000 meters (266,000 ft). As the aircraft ascended to its peak, mission control and its team of engineers instructed Adams to begin a planned wing-rocking maneuver so a fixed camera on the ship could scan the horizon.
Not long after this, the rocking became extreme, so Adams abandoned the maneuver. As the craft climbed to its maximum altitude, it was off-course by up to 15 degrees. Adams began descending at right angles to his flight path. Not suspecting anything was awry at this point, mission control told Adams that he was a little high but still in good shape.
Moments later, as the X-15 descended to 70,000 meters (230,000 ft), the aircraft entered a Mach 5 spin caused by rapidly escalating dynamic pressures. At 36,000 meters (118,000 ft), Adams recovered from the spin, but he next went into an inverted, angled Mach 4.7 dive, moving at 50,000 meters (160,000 ft) per minute. The plane faced increasing dynamic pressure and extreme forces during its sudden descent. When it hit 20,000 meters (65,000 ft), it broke up in midair. Adams didn’t survive.
Posthumously, Adams was awarded astronaut wings as his X-15 flight had passed an altitude of 80.5 kilometers (50 mi), the US definition of space.
The Soyuz spacecraft were designed in the 1960s as part of the Soviet Manned Lunar Program but were eventually used to shuttle cosmonauts to and from the Salyut and Mir space stations. This particular mission of Soyuz 23 and her crew of Vyacheslav Zudov and Valery Rozhdestvensky happened on October 16, 1976 and took the craft toward space station Salyut 5.
The launch was plagued with problems from the start. First, the bus transporting the cosmonauts to the launch pad broke down. Then, at liftoff, the craft began to veer off-course due to heavy winds at the launch site. Once in orbit, Soyuz tried docking with Salyut 5, but the docking program malfunctioned and turned them away from the space station. After failed attempts to correct the error, and with fuel running low, the Soyuz turned around and prepared for reentry.
The Soyuz was supposed to land in Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, but vicious winds pushed it to an icy lake over 120 kilometers (75 mi) away. After touchdown, the parachute used to slow the craft’s descent began taking on water, dragging the spacecraft deeper and further into the lake. The cosmonauts donned all survival clothing they had available as the capsule began to freeze in the -17-degree Celsius (1.4°F) temperatures.
When morning broke, Zudov was unconscious. Frost lined the capsule’s interior. A rescue party arrived and tried to lift the module from the water, but their helicopter wasn’t strong enough, so they dragged the capsule to shore instead. Eleven hours after Soyuz 23 touched down, it finally reached safety. To the surprise of the rescue crew, both cosmonauts emerged safe and well.
In 1962, the US began the Gemini program, designed to support the Apollo lunar missions. On March 16, 1966, Gemini 8 launched successfully from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying Command Pilot Neil Armstrong and Pilot David Scott. The vessel aimed to perform docking tests on an unmanned target vehicle, the “Gemini Agena Target Vehicle,” or “GATV.”
They succeeded—it was the first ever successful space docking. But half an hour into the docking phase of the mission, the Gemini and Agena began to roll and yaw, forcing Armstrong to stabilize them with hand controls. The vehicles kept tumbling violently, and the astronauts disengaged from the GATV.
Once the Gemini was released, it continued an even more aggressive roll and pitch. It rotated about once every second, leaving the astronauts dizzy and at an incredible risk of blacking out.
The culprit of the increased spinning: a circuit failure to a thruster, rendering it permanently on. Once the astronauts discovered the problem, they received the order to return to Earth. The Gemini touched down safely 800 kilometers (500 mi) west of Okinawa less than 11 hours after launching.
The Apollo 1 tragedy occurred on January 27, 1967 during a simulated launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The crew—Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee—were training for a future launch by rehearsing the countdown sequence aboard a command module mounted on an unfuelled Saturn rocket.
At 1:00 PM, the three astronauts entered the module and began experiencing problems almost immediately. Grissom reported a strange sour odor inside his suit, and the countdown was held while they took an oxygen sample. Technical problems filled the next few hours—at one point, a microphone refused to turn off—but by 6:30 PM, the simulated countdown was at T minus 10 minutes.
One minute later, one of the astronauts said, “Fire, I smell fire.” Immediately after, another said, “Fire in the cockpit.” Within 17 seconds of the first report of fire, all three crew members were dead.
Carbon monoxide asphyxia had killed them all. Third-degree burns also covered all their bodies, but the asphyxiation got them first. The fire remains officially unexplained. All we know is that the oxygen-rich atmosphere, the vulnerable wiring and plumbing, and the wide allotment of combustible materials inside the cabin made for a deadly combination.