The Worst Space Disasters You Didn't Know About

While the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters are among the most notorious in history, they were far from the only catastrophes to befall humanity’s quest for the heavens…

The crew of Apollo 1

The crew of Apollo 1


The Apollo programme would make history with Apollo 11's incredible Moon landing. But, years before that triumphant moment, the programme began with 1967's Apollo 1, which was intended to be a manned test flight of the Apollo Command Module into Earth's orbit. The crew consisted of veteran astronauts Gus Grissom and Ed White - the latter already having distinguished himself as the first American to undertake a space walk - and first-timer Roger Chaffee.

The three men had voiced concerns about the flammable materials, such as nylon and Velcro, inside the module's cabin. Despite being given safety assurances, they even took photos of themselves posing in prayer around a model of the cabin, sending it to NASA bigwig Joseph Shea with the inscription "It isn't that we don't trust you, Joe, but this time we've decided to go over your head."

On 27 January 1967, during what was supposed to be a routine launch simulation, their worst fears became a dreadful reality. While locked within the cabin and communicating with the ground crew, the astronauts suddenly reported a fire in the cabin. Within seconds, the entire module was a toxic inferno, and all three men were dead. The fire, which was ignited by electrical wiring, was exacerbated by the pure oxygen atmosphere in the cabin, meaning the men had no chance of survival.


When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969, it may have been a joyous moment for the human race, but the Cold War superpowers weren't about to join hands and sing "Kumbaya" over it. Putting the first men on the lunar surface was a huge win for the US in the "space race", and the Soviet Union retaliated a few years later with their own milestone moment: putting the first ever space station into orbit.

This was the Salyut 1, and it represented a huge step forward in space exploration. Shortly after its successful launch in 1971, three cosmonauts set off to man the new station. They were the crew of the Soyuz 11: Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev. It was a historic mission, which saw the world's first space station inhabitants live aboard the Salyut 1 for 23 days. During this time they became living icons in the USSR, hailed as heroes, the worthy successors to Yuri Gagarin, who'd become the first man in space a decade before.

After touching back down on Earth, the capsule was met by the gleeful recovery team, who opened the hatch expecting to find the giddy heroes ready to be pulled out. Instead, they were met by a horrific sight: all three men dead in their seats, their faces covered in blue blotches and rivulets of blood seeping from their eyes and ears.

At some point while leaving the space station, a valve had ruptured, causing catastrophic and lethal depressurization. To this day, these three men remain the only humans to be died while actually in outer space. All other fatalities - such as those on board Challenger and Columbia - have occurred below the commonly accepted boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and space.


The first person to die during a space mission was a Soviet cosmonaut named Vladimir Komarov, and it occurred in circumstances that are still controversial to this day. His mission, Soyuz 1, was intended to be an extravagant show of Soviet space ingenuity, with the craft intended to dock with the Soyuz 2 and allow an exchange of crew members in orbit.

But Komarov, a respected and experienced cosmonaut, had serious misgivings about the spacecraft. Historians disagree about the accuracy of reports - this, after all, was during the Soviet era when misinformation and cover-ups were rife - but it's been alleged that Komarov knew all along the flight would be fatal, and only agreed to do it to save the life of his backup pilot, the great Yuri Gagarin, who would have been compelled to go in his place.

There is also controversy about whether Komarov, grappling with his malfunctioning spacecraft while in orbit, actually spoke to ground control about his own imminent death, railing against "this devil ship" and cursing the superiors who'd insisted on the mission.

We can't know for sure. But what is beyond doubt is that the mission utterly failed. Bad weather back on Earth prevented the launch of Soyuz 2, which he had been due to dock with, and Komarov attempted to return alone. The re-entry went fine, but it was at this point that the mission's failure became catastrophic failure, when his parachutes malfunctioned and his spacecraft slammed into the Earth at terrifying speed. Komarov was killed instantly, the first casualty of the space race. A statue of Komarov (pictured) can be found in Moscow, commemorating his life and work.