Putting the most capable humans in charge of the most exciting and dangerous missions is a sure-fire recipe for thrilling drama. That's exactly why there are so many incredible stories of astronauts slipping from the shackles of certain death at the very last minute. I hope these 9 stories of incredible near-disasters of space missions raises every single one of your hairs.
We've all heard the warnings about fires at the gas pump. Frankly, I have my kids in my car so much that gassing up is the only time I get for chain-smoking. In September, 1983, Cosmonauts awaiting liftoff of the Soyuz-10-1 space capsule experienced their own ignition while fueling up.
Naturally, seeing a space rocket catch on fire is alarming. However, for the cosmonauts inside, it presented a unique brand of terror. They couldn't see what was going on outside, so all they could detect was that the ship was shaking in a most-definitely-not-at-all-safe manner. Also, it should be noted, the people inside the spacecraft had absolutely no way to exit the craft on their own, leaving them to hope that somebody out there was handling whatever was going wrong. Picture yourself in your car while it is shaking violently and billowing huge clouds of smoke, yet you are unable to remove your seat belt.
There was a team outside the craft working on freeing the trapped cosmonauts, but that wasn't enough. Launch control had, of course, noticed that their prized ship was engulfed in flames, and had activated the emergency escape system. However, the fire burned through the cables needed to power this system, leaving the cosmonauts stuck. The good news was that a backup protocol existed. However, considering this was an emergency escape last-chance plan, the backup system will go down as one of the most inelegantly conceived procedures of all time.
The backup involved two people receiving a code word, then pressing a pair of buttons simultaneously. Oh, and these buttons were in another building and that building was 20 minutes away. Activating this emergency protocol took almost half a minute, during which the flames spread to the entire launch pad. The protocol was engaged, the capsule detached from the burning rocket and shot off the platform. A few short seconds later, the rocket exploded in an enormous burst of heat and shrapnel. One of the cosmonauts famously explained their next step was to switch off their voice recorder because "we were swearing."
This crisis had been averted, but another one loomed: The capsule was supposed to replace an old one at an occupied space station, leaving those cosmonauts temporarily unavable to return to Earth. Eventually everyone was retrieved and turned out fine, as long as A. You believe the Russian media reporting that everyone was fine, and B. Your definition of "fine" includes "returning to mid-1980s Communist Russia."
Mercury Redstone 4
Imagine this: It's 1961, and you're piloting NASA's second attempt at space flight. Nervous, you are fired over 100 miles into the air then fall back to Earth, all in a matter of 15 minutes. I don't feel it is unjustified to assume that whoever was piloting that flight felt relieved when they splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean. However, this relief soon gave way to terror (and, perhaps, a greater appreciation of the nature of irony). While the flight went according to plan, the whole "get out of the spaceship" part did not.
There was an emergency door, designed to blow open in case the operator needed to make a swift exit. This detonated and detached perfectly, except for one small issue: It wasn't supposed to detonate or detach at all, as there was no emergency. Freezing ocean water rushed into the tiny capsule. The pilot, whom I will refer to as "Gus Grissom" because that is his real name, climbed out of the capsule and took his chances among the high waves.
Grissom's space suit was designed to provide flotation should exactly such an emergency occur. With helicopters on the way, all he had to do was bob around for a while and get rescued. However, soon after hitting the water, his heavy flight suit started to lose air and sink. He was now in a race against time to get picked up by helicopter before being pulled under. That meant a flotation device had to be thrown from a chopper down to Grissom, and land close enough where Grissom could reach it before sinking. The thrower, a well-liked coworker of Grissom's, hit the astronaut dead on, Grissom was pulled to safety. So, if you're applying to NASA, be sure to include your skill at the game of horseshoes on your resume.
In 1961, Yuri Gagarin went around the world in 108 minutes, returning to Earth only because he had to push the button from LOST. The part where he floated above oceans and various continents while enjoying being the first man in space went well. However, just like with a budget puddle-hopper airline, most of the alarming turbulence happened during the descent back to Earth. There were two parts to Gagarin's spacecraft: The reentry module where he sat, and the service module. The service module was not helpful for re-entry, just like strapping a screaming child to your back will not help your landing accuracy while parachuting. So, during re-entry, the service module detached. However, it did not separate: A bundle of wires connecting the two modules remained in place, keeping these parts tethered and causing crazy-not-good vibrations. While there was a protocol for if the reentry attempt failed (by which we mean Gagarin had 10 days worth of snacks with him to eat while waiting for the craft to naturally drift back to Earth), there was no real plan in place for if the ship was blasted back toward the Earth in the wrong direction. There was nothing Gagarin could do but hope that things somehow worked themselves out. While re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, conditions caused the wires to burn up, giving the capsule enough time to settle into the right altitude. I think about this every time I try to move my computer, but forget about a cord and end up dragging the monitor off my desk.
Spacewalking is one of the most simultaneously awe-inspiring and pants-poopingly-frightening things a human can do. So we would imagine the first spacewalker was just a little nervous. Would his spacesuit be able to withstand the extremely harsh environment of space? Might he become untethered, floating out into space forever? Would he enter the monolith, and be forced to live out his life in a sparse, but stately set of rooms? Well, obviously that last one wasn't going to happen, because that movie hadn't come out yet.
On March 18, 1965, orbiting cosmonaut Alexey Leonov donned a spacesuit and inflated the ship's airlock. Yes, the airlock was inflatable, which comes into play. The whole experience turned out far less serene than Hollywood makes spacewalks seem. For starters, he didn't really walk out of the airlock, but in his own words, he "popped out of the hatch like a cork." Leonov's only real job on the 12-minute walk was to set up a camera and take some snaps, but his suit malfunctioned to the point where even pushing the camera button became impossible. Engineers hadn't anticipated that the space suit would inflate and stiffen to the point where Leonov couldn't reach the camera's operating switch on his legs. As it turned out, this would be the least of his problems.
When Leonov returned to the ship, he found his suit's expansion made it impossible for him to fit back into the airlock. He would have to release some of his suit's pressure, which meant getting it below levels that were considered safe. Meanwhile the space temperatures were rapidly contorting the airlock's seal. Leonov managed to survive, and the ship was resealed after a struggle.
This wasn't even the scariest part of the voyage. The bulkiness of their spacesuits caused them to land hundreds of miles off-course. The Soviet Union is pretty much a vast frozen wasteland dotted with the occasional bastion of habitability. Everybody except Hitler knows that. So landing hundreds of miles off course put them smack in the middle of a blisteringly cold forest. Not only that, the place was crawling with wolves and bears in their mating season. Horny wolves and bears wouldn't think twice at taking out their sexual frustration by tearing apart a helpless human (or is that just me?)
Now, every Soviet Union citizen knows that the best way to deal with an aggressive bear or wolf is to get so drunk as to appear even more savage and feral than the beasts, themselves. However, lacking supplies, the cosmonauts were forced to rely on their next best trick: Looking super hardened from enduring the Soviet's aggressive space exploration program and, frankly, living everyday life in the Soviet Union. No doubt any roving packs of wolves took one look at these guys and realized they had a better chance of gaining sustenance by taking a bite out of a frozen tree. After a night hunkered down in their capsule, rescuers were able to safely retrieve the cosmonauts.
In 1969, Boris Volynov took part in a first-of-its-kind mission. After docking with another spacecraft, he went on a spacewalk from one ship to the other. Everything went according to plan, until he attempted to return to Earth.
Upon entering the planet's atmosphere, the service module was supposed to detach from the part in which Volynov was. It did not, which caused serious problems because of it's unsually large size relative to the rest of the craft. The large service module on top of the relatively smaller reentry craft caused a lot of imbalance. It's like when I would shove over people wearing large amounts of gear on their backs, and laugh at their struggle to right themselves until I received a dishonorable discharge.
Because of the added bulk, the ship entered the atmosphere almost upside down. It was not designed for the hatch-side to hit air currents, so critical gaskets began to melt. The compartment filled with dangerous fumes and smoke, while Volynov was yanked from his seat. However, this also caused the service module to burn free, and the ship righted itself. All had worked out, and it was smooth sailing for the rest of Volynov's return.
Well, not really. In the minutes before touchdown, the parachute malfunctioned and the soft-landing rockets failed. The impact hit so hard that several of Volynov's teeth broke. The capsule landed in the mountains in -36 F temperatures. Realizing quickly that he would freeze to death, Volynov began a desperate hike in attempt to reach safety. That's one good thing about being lost in the icy mountains: You always know which way to go (down). After walking several miles, he found shelter at the house of a local peasant. Why is it always rural people who get visited by beings from outer space? Upon rescue, Volynov opened his mouth full of broken teeth and quipped, "is my hair gray?"
It's interesting that so many big plans in life get waylaid not by the plan failing, but by weird and unexpected stuff that has nothing to do with the main goal. Someone plans a career, but has to restructure everything because they have a baby; someone lays out a dream vacation, but has to call it off because of a family member in crisis; I plan a big wedding, but the bride doesn't show up because I didn't include cost-of-shipping in my estimates, etc.
Such was the case for Apollo 12. Launched in 1969, this was the second U.S. mission to land on the moon. The first one had landed off-course, so it was likely that this fact plus the main goal of walking around on the moon was foremost on the minds of astronauts Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, and Richard F. Gordon. But although the plan to make an accurate landing went off pretty perfectly, it was the relatively simple process of getting the rocket in the air which went horrifically haywire.
In front of an audience that included then-president Richard Nixon, the Apollo 12 rocket blasted off of the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center. Things were looking great for all of about half a minute, then the ship was hit by lightning. Due to the ionization of the capsule, this was not an unexpected turn of events, and several protective protocols were in place. First, the fuel cells were automatically taken offline when their circuits registered the discharge. Then, the command/service module went down, severely compromising the propulsion and energy systems. The instrumental unit was fine, however, which meant the rocket continued to fly correctly. The whole thing could probably be fixed with some doodling, so there wasn't cause for alarm.
Until 20 seconds later, when the ship was hit by a second bolt of lightning.
This lit up pretty much every warning light on the control panel, and things began to malfunction. A quick thinking operator on ground control realized that the mission might have a chance if they switched the signalling equipment to a backup power supply. However, neither Gordon nor Conrad was familiar with this procedure, and it looked like the entire mission would have to be aborted. Just then, Alan Bean came through, remembering the operation from a simulated drill a year prior. Bean moved the system onto auxillary power. This allowed them to bring back the fuel cells and restore telemetry. After a serious inspection of their spaceship, the astronauts determined that there had been no serious damage. The mission continued, but terror lingered, for they couldn't inspect the bolts of the parachute system used to safely land on Earth. If those bolts had already fired, the astronauts would crash land into the ocean with no chance of survival. The astronauts were not informed of this potential issue, but we have to imagine they weren't ignorant to the "this ship got hit by lightning twice, maybe landing won't go so well," factor. Fortunately, the parachute bolts held intact, bringing the astronauts to a reasonably gentle splashdown.
Much of this thrilling story has been covered in modern media. For more details and plot, you can watch the movie or, better yet, read the book co-authored by one of the astronauts involved.
Because of this media saturation, most of us are familiar with the details of this mission: Crew goes up to walk on the moon and play nine holes of golf or whatever, oxygen tank explodes, crew has to figure out how to get home by rigging both a system to remove carbon dioxide and a way to reach Earth using minimal power, Tom Hanks survives, etc.
I will touch upon a few fascinating elements that the film neglected. Or if it did mention them, I didn't notice because I was busy staring at Kevin Bacon's dreamy high cheekbones. When the ship was approaching re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, it needed to separate the command module from the lunar module into which the astronauts were crammed. Otherwise, there would be too much weight to safely execute a splashdown landing. However, the device that usually organized this detachment had no power. So an alternate way was needed to make the two modules separate. To solve the problem, an emergency team of engineers from the University of Toronto was formed. This was before pocket calculators were commonplace, so the team had to do all of their calculations by slide rule under a time limit of only a few hours. First, they figured out that pressurizing the tunnel between the two modules would provide enough push to separate them. However, then they were tasked with the even more arduous calculations for exactly how much pressure was needed. Too much, and the lunar module could be damaged, causing the astronauts to burn up upon reentry. Too little pressure, and there wouldn't be sufficient separation. The team of engineers took six hours to slide their rules all over the place, before coming up with what turned out to be the correct solution.
Another element not featured in the film, for obvious reasons, involves a miscommunication between the astronauts and ground control. The space pilots were so busy taking serious orders on how to get their ship back to Earth, that they didn't have time to ask for clarification on less important details. One of these details involved the disposing of their urine. For a brief period, ground control asked them to stop releasing their stored urine out into space. However, the astronauts were too busy to ask about when exactly they could resume their urine dumps, and just kept all their liquid waste in spare bags lying around. "I'm glad we got home when we did," commented mission astronaut James Lovell on the urine situation, "because we were just about out of ideas for stowage."
This 1975 space mission was formally known as "Soyuz 7K-T number 39" but given the plucky nickname of "Soyuz 18a." The goal was to dock with an already-orbiting space station, but it never even got close. Five minutes after launch, when the rockets were about 90 miles in the air, there was a failure for second-stage separation. Several of the rockets were supposed to detach from the craft after they were done launching, but they did not break off as scheduled. This forced the mission to be aborted, and the craft itself was relied upon to perform the automated abort program. However, designers had not anticipated that the ship would be pointed towards Earth when the program launched. As such, when the rockets were detached, it caused the cosmonauts and their ship to blast towards the Earth at speeds of over 200 meters per second. The cosmonauts were supposed to endure pressures of no more than 15 g. Instead, they felt upwards of 21 g. This is like having 21 alternate universe copies of yourself laying on top of you, which is known as "the Forbidden Position" in the Kama Sutra because it destroys the space-time continuum.
Forunately, the parachute system was able to slow the craft down for a "safe" landing on a snowy hillside. Unfortunately, the spaceship then began to roll down the hill towards a sheer drop off a cliff. The ship stopped just shy of the edge, when a parachute was snagged on some vegetation. But the worst part was only beginning.
Not only were the cosmonauts in about 4-5 feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures, they weren't sure if they were still in Russia or if they had landed in China. Relations between these two nations were frostier than the icicles forming on the cosmonauts' eyebrows. Adding to the drama was the fact that Russia had planned to do some military experiments during this mission. So, the cosmonauts first had to destroy everything in the ship related to their military plans, then slog out into the freezing cold and try to find shelter before their blood became a Tang-sicle. So remote was the location in which they were that Russian forces couldn't airlift them out immediately. However, rescuers were able to reach the cosmonauts and help them survive a night in the frozen mountains. A less sensitive writer might say something like, "this is why all Russian space missions now include an emergency supply of vodka," or "Russian cosmonaut training now includes learning how to cuddle for warmth," but I won't go there.
The Soyuz 23 mission gave the cosmonauts a blue undercarriage in more ways than one. First, upon reaching the space station, the automatic docking system broke. It's quite feasible for a crew to do a manual dock, however no one had been trained in this. Consequently, the mission was aborted when the ship was only about 100 meters away from the space station. That's like driving cross country to the Super Bowl, then having to turn around and go home just because you were required to parallel park.
This wasn't the only frustration endured during the mission, unfortunately. Upon reaching Earth, the crew landed their capusle on top of a frozen lake. There was a blizzard and -22 F temperatures, which made reaching the crew extremely difficult. This was mainly due to the fact that Russia was trying to reach the crew using, I kid you not, rubber rafts. While waiting, the ice on the lake broke and the space capsule plunged into the freezing waters. Fortunately, if it's one thing space capsules are designed for, it's withstanding freezing temperatures while also not letting any gas nor liquid seep in or out. So they crew was still relatively safe, if extremely difficult to reach. Adding to the eeriness was the fact that the crew was extremely low on power, and had to hang out waiting for rescue with just a small interior bulb providing light.
The next day, Russia tried again, this time with frogmen and helicopters rather than a bunch of dudes trying to row miles in a freezing bog. The capsule was brought to surface, and the crew safely extracted. I wrote a screenplay about this, but it failed to sell because I refused to remove the part where the plot dovetails to a giant, Chernobyl-irradiated lake monster eating the capsule like a fishing lure.
Seriously speaking, any one of these dramas would make for an exciting film. The intensity and spectacle of space programs might stand alone as the pinnacle of human drama, at least until we find the need to colonize other worlds.