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14 Most Terrifying Astronaut Accidents

[Estimated read time: 9 minutes]

As fascinating and thrilling a space venture might present itself, those are actually more fatal, incredibly dangerous and insane than any other thing on the earth. We are more familiar with big space tragedies like Challenger and Apollo 13, but the fact is that there are other more horrifying and tragic space accidents which are fairly unknown. We believe that most you have already watched the space thriller “Gravity”, which, although fictionally but truthfully depicted the terrifying prospect of an astronaut adrift in space. Today, let’s find out what it takes to be an astronaut. Below is the list of most horrific accidents occurred to the cosmonauts.

14. Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.

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The year 1967 was plagued with many spaceflight fatalities. After a couple of months since the T-38 jet crash in St. Louis, Missouri, another astronaut met his demise on December 8, 1967. Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the first African-American astronaut in the United States Air Force. In June 1967, after successfully completing the Air Force Flight Test Pilot Training School, he was selected as an astronaut in the USAF’s Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program.

Lawrence Jr. was killed in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He was flying as a flight instructor pilot for a test trainee learning a toilsome steep-descent glide technique. After an erroneous approach, the flight went off balance. The airplane struck the ground hard, it caught fire while rolling on the ground. The trainee pilot’s timely ejection saved him with major injuries.

But, Lawrence, was unable to escape in time, who was sitting in the back seat, because of an ejection mechanism, which delays it for a moment to avoid hitting the front seat, killing Lawrence instantly. Had he survived, he most likely would have been among the (MOL) astronauts who were transferred to NASA after the program’s cancellation, some of whom flew on the Space Shuttle.

13. Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was undoubtedly the first ever human who went into the outer space in 1961. Upon his arrival, he became popular and an international celebrity. He inadvertently thwarted his death in 1967, when he was the backup crew for Soyuz 1, which ended in a fatal crash. Gagarin died on 27 March 1968, in a MiG-15 training jet crash near the town of Kirzhach. On board with him was flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin. The cause of the crash that killed both of them was not entirely clear, and has been a subject of speculation over the years.

In a declassified report in 2003, KGB blamed the ground staff at the airbase for the crash. The investigation concluded that the MiG-15 entered a spin, either due to a bird strike or because of a sudden move to avoid another aircraft. Then, because of the out-of-date weather report, supplied by the ground control, the crew misjudged the altitude, and could not react properly to bring the MiG-15 out of its spin.

12. Voskhod’s Vicious Vacuum

Voskhod 2 was a Soviet manned space mission launched on March 18, 1965. The mission featured the world’s first ever spacewalk by one of its crew member Alexei Leonov. Leonov’s only tasks were to attach a camera to the end of the airlock to record his spacewalk. But, after minutes in open space, he suddenly realized that something wasn’t right.

In open space, his pressurized suite began to inflate drastically. The inflation was so severe that he could’t even re-enter the craft’s airlock. To allow himself some flexibility, Leonov released a pressure valve to grant some of the suit’s pressure to bleed off, but this resulted in a quick loss of oxygen, which nearly killed him.

After hustling with the space suit, he was finally able to get back inside, suffering some serious side effects.The crew again experienced a subsequent difficulty in sealing the hatch properly due to thermal distortion caused by Leonov’s lengthy stay in space. Because the malfunction, they weren’t able to stay on schedule and landed hundred kilometers off course in a remote forest. Fortunately, both the astronauts survived and rescued later.

Read: 15 Amazing Space Suit Designs

11. MIR accident,

Image credit: NASA

In June 1997, an unmanned payload carrier named Progress M-34, crashed with the Russian Mir space station while docking. The Russians were testing station’s TORU manual docking system to manually dock Progress carrier with an intent to replace much expensive Krus automated docking system.

The Progress freighter collided with Mir destroying its Spektr module and solar arrays of the space station. It also punctured a hole in the hull, causing air depressurizing. On board was two Russian and one American astronauts who were able to take control of the space station after it went haywire after the collision.

10. Fire in Altitude Chamber

A sensory deprivation chamber is a common procedure for an astronaut or a cosmonaut in this case. It is meant for the deliberate reduction or removal of stimuli from one or more of the senses. The process is ugly but harmless, but not in the case of a Russian trainee cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko. Bondarenko was a 24-year-old cosmonaut, who had reached the tenth day of his fifteen days endurance training in Moscow.

The chamber was at least filled with 50% oxygen. Bondarenko, having completed his work for the day, he removed monitoring sensors from his body and washed his skin with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball, which he then carelessly threw away. The cotton ball landed on an electric hot plate which caught fire. He suffered third-degree burns over his body and face, and died shortly after being hospitalized.

9. Struck twice by lightning during launch

Image credit: NASA

Apollo 12 was launched on schedule from the Kennedy space station under a heavy rainstorm. Thirty-six and a half seconds into the air, the on-board crew went through a fierce lightning strike, which knocked the space craft’s fuel cells offline and forced the craft to switch to battery power automatically.

While they were still scrambling to fix problems, another lightning struck the Apollo 12 in 52 seconds after liftoff, this time it knocked out the on-board guidance platform offline. This led to multiple systems failure. Back in ground, everyone in the mission control was anxious. After, several minutes, the craft regained the power. The astronauts spent few more crucial time in Earth orbit before starting their journey for the moon.

Read: 10 Worst Space Shuttle Launch Failures

8. Equipment failure

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The mission conducted the docking of two spacecraft in orbit. Gemini VIII was planned to be a three-day mission. After being launched into its orbit, on the fourth revolution, it was to rendezvous and dock with an Agena target vehicle, which had been earlier launched into a 161-nautical-mile circular orbit. After a successful docking, a maneuvering thruster refused to shut down and put their capsule into an uncontrolled spin.

After the Gemini spun up to one revolution per second, the command pilot Neil Armstrong regained control by switching from the main attitude control system to the reentry system. Mission rules required a landing as soon as possible once the reentry thrusters were used, causing an early end to the flight.

7. Aborted spacewalk after water leak in suit


In July 2013, during EVA-23 (Extravehicular activity) of Expedition 36 to the International Space Station, European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano reported that water was steadily leaking at the back of his head. Flight controllers aborted the EVA immediately, and Parmitano made his way back to the airlock, followed by fellow astronauts.

The airlock began re-pressurizing, and by this time Parmitano started having difficulty seeing, hearing, and speaking due to the amount of water in his suit. After re-pressurization, Expedition 36 commander Pavel Vinogradov and crew members Fyodor Yurchikhin and Karen Nyberg quickly removed Parmitano’s helmet and soaked up the water with towels. Despite the incident, Parmitano was reported to be in good spirits and suffered no injury.

6. Gemini 9A

Gemini 9A was a manned space flight of NASA’s Gemini program. On February 28, 1966, Elliot See and Charles Bassett II, the original crew of Gemini 9A were arriving from Texas to do a final check on their spacecraft at the McDonnell Aircraft plant in St. Louis, Missouri. That day, the weather conditions at the Lambert airfield was poor and deteriorating. Flying near that area was extremely difficult. In a desperate attempt to land their aircraft, pilot Elliot See came dangerously close to one of the assembly hangers and finally crashed into the building. Both astronauts died instantly.

5. Gas poisoning on board

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In one of the most celebrated space events, astronauts from the United States and Soviet Union docked their respective spacecrafts in display of International goodwill. The mission ceremoniously marked the end of the Space Race that had begun in 1957. The Mission was considered a great success, as both the crew exchanged pleasantries and were offered tours of each other’s craft. Things were going just as planned until the American crew started their journey towards home.

Upon reentry and splashdown of the Apollo craft, the crew was accidentally exposed to toxic nitrogen tetroxide fumes, caused by a malfunction in the reaction control system (RCS) oxidizer. Struggling to remain conscious in heavy toxic environment, one of the crew member, astronaut Tom Stafford was able to gain access to oxygen masks, which ultimately saved their lives. 

4. The X-15 catastrophe

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The North American X-15 was a Hypersonic aircraft that traveled at such high altitudes that most of its operating pilots were qualified as astronauts. Michael J. Adams was one of them. He was a pilot of extraordinary skills, who won numerous prestigious trophies. In 1965, he was selected for the United States Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory program as a pilot. And in 1966, he became a part of the North American X-15 program.

His X-15 flight on 15 November 1967, was as usual, but soon after reaching a cruising altitude of 50.38 miles, some on-board electrical disturbances affected the inertial system and boost guidance computer causing the plane to be disoriented. Unnoticed by the pilot, after a planned wing-rocking maneuver, the vehicle’s heading started banking towards the right.

The heading drift further increased while the X-15 was travelling at a speed of Mach 5 (3,400 miles), during this he finally recognized that he was in a Hypersonic spin. Adams was able to recover from the spin, but soon he found himself in a nosedive position at Mach 4.7. The plane crashed somewhere in the Californian desert at a staggering speed of 6,400 km/h, which killed him instantly.

3. Decompression Soyuz 11

Russian’s Soyuz 11 was the first and the only space mission to land on world’s first space station Salyut 1. The mission crew comprising of three Russian cosmonauts were killed upon re-entry after a three-week space stay. Later investigations revealed that the crew died due to suffocation which was induced by multiple mechanical failures, crippling the life support systems on the manned space craft. The recovery team found the crew dead.

2. Apollo 1 fire incident

A cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test on January 27 at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex killed all three crew members Of the Apollo 1 and destroyed the Command Module (CM). After investigation, in a reconstruction of events it was found out that while crew members were using the time to run through their checklist again, a momentary increase in AC Bus 2 voltage occurred causing a spark. The intensity of the fire fed by pure oxygen caused the pressure to rise to 29 psi (200 kPa), which damaged the Command Module’s inner wall at 6:31:19.

Read: 30 Latest Space Discoveries and Achievements

Flames and gases then rushed outside the Command Module through open access panels to the pad service structure. Intense heat and smoke, made gas masks ineffective, which were designed for toxic fumes rather than heavy smoke hampered the ground crew’s attempts to rescue the men. In agonizing pain, the astronauts tried whatever they could do, but all in vein. All three were found dead.

1. Parachute Failure

Problems began in Soyuz 1 craft moments after its entry into the Earth’s orbit when one of the spacecraft’s energy panels failed to start, leading to a severe shortage of electricity. This resulted into mechanical failures effecting every other important equipment on board. Things continued to deteriorate until the craft completely lost its maneuvering abilities. The mission was finally called off half way through.

Read: 25+ Most Amazing Things Found In Space

After competing 18 orbits, Soyuz 1 entered into the Earth’s atmosphere. To control the rate of descent, first the drogue parachute than the main parachute were deployed. Those parachuted were the only thing standing between life and death. However, due to a defect, the main parachute did not unfold. Komarov died soon after the impact.