It’s not surprising to know that it’s very difficult to break free from Earth’s gravitational pull. The next time a shuttle launch happens, take a look at the massive rockets that launch the shuttle into space. Try to imagine the amount of thrust they exert during ignition. 

And that’s just one aspect of space travel. There’s barely any room for error. Any of the numerous equipment can malfunction and cause an accident. Accidents involving rockets and fuel are often catastrophic and fatal. So how many times has this happened? We probably won’t know but we’ve compiled a list of rocket accidents throughout history. Here it is:

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VANGUARD TEXT VEHICLE 3

The Soviet Union made history on Oct 4, 1957 by being the first country to develop and successfully launch an artificial Earth satellite. Sputnik 1 was seen as catalyst for the coming space race between the Soviet Union and the USA. Desperate to respond, the US approves the Vanguard TV3 for launch two months later.

On Dec 6, 1957 the booster ignited and the rocket began to rise. A few seconds later the rocket lost thrust and fell back down the launch pad. This caused the tanks to rupture and explode, destroying the rocket and severely damaging the launch pad. 

This rocket failure may not be as well-known as it resulted in no deaths but it’s an interesting footnote in the space race between the USSR and the USA.

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INTELSAT 708

Numerous rocket failures have repercussions in the state of world politics. Among these is the crash of the INTELSAT 708 on the 16th of February 1996. The Intelsat 708 was an American built telecommunications satellite that was to be launched into orbit using the Chinese Long March 3B rocket.

Launching from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China, the rocket deviated from its course shortly after launch and crashed into a nearby village, killing 6 people and injured 57 others.

An investigation by the US government found that the information in the crash report had been illegally transferred to China. They suspect that because China improved their launch vehicles and their guidance systems, resulting in the March rockets becoming more reliable. Since then the March rockets have not experienced mission failure until 2002. 

As a result of the crash, the US government reclassified satellite technology as a munition and blocked its export to China. No export licenses to China have been issued since 1996. An official from the Bureau of Industry and Security reiterated in 2016 that no US origin content, regardless of significance, can go to China.

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NEDELIN CATASTROPHE

During the space race between nations, each successful launch would be circulated all throughout that country’s mass media. Launch failures and accidents, particularly explosions, would cripple a nation’s image and affect morale. Therefore it comes as no surprise that several failures were kept out of public knowledge. One of the largest cover ups was the Nedelin Catastrophe at the Baikonur test range in the Soviet Union, on October 24, 1960.

The disaster was named after the commanding officer of the Soviet Union’s Strategic Rocket Forces, Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin. Wanting to achieve a test launch before the November 7 anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Nedelin put extreme pressure on their schedule despite the emerging engineering difficulties. This resulted in the pre-launch tests overlapping with launch preparations.

Before launch, a short circuit caused the second stage engine to fire while being tested. The first stage fuel tanks directly below detonated. The resulting massive explosion destroyed the missile. People near the rocket were incinerated instantly. The people further away were either burned to death or poisoned by the toxic vapors.

Nedelin, a top aide, the USSR’s top missile guidance designer and over seventy other officers and engineers were either incinerated or asphyxiated. Those who didn’t perish during the initial explosion later succumbed to burns or poisoning. Only two people survived as they were having a cigarette break behind a bunker a few hundred meters away, yet they still suffered burn injuries.

Khrushchev immediately imposed complete secrecy on the events. They circulated a news release stating Nedelin died of a plane crash and the families of the other engineers were advised to say their loved ones had died of the same cause. Despite other news agencies and even a captured Soviet spy confirming details of the accident, the Soviet Union refused to acknowledge the events until 1989.

 

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Before seeking refuge, the camera operator had remotely activated automatic cameras set around the launching pad that filmed the explosion in detail.

 

Alcantara VLS Accident

In a culmination of Brazil’s aspirations to be a spacefaring nation, the Brazilian Space Agency intended to launch two satellites into orbit on August 22, 2003. But the satellites never left earth. Instead the rocket exploded on its launch pad killing 21 people and wounding several others. The launch pad and launch tower, a 10-story high structure, was also destroyed.

At 1:26 pm an inadvertent propellant ignition on one of the four first stage motors causes an explosion that destroyed the launch vehicles as it stood on its launch pad. The people standing on the launch pad died immediately. The explosion even started a bush fire in the nearby jungle.

After the disaster, the BSA was criticized for its use of solid fuel rockets, which are easier to build and ignite than liquid fuel rockets, but more dangerous since they lack throttle controls and emergency shut-offs. The government commissioned investigation determined that a buildup of volatile gasses coupled with electromagnetic interference caused the rocket to ignite.

But the investigation places the blame firmly on the government managers’ decisions before the accident. Their lax management led to a breakdown in safety procedures, routine maintenance and training. The space center employees in charge of maintenance were all overworked and understaffed.

The main thing to consider here is that Brazil’s space program at the time only had a budget of 20 to 30 million USD which is tiny compared to India’s space program annual budget of 300 million USD. In trying to make space travel affordable they ended up sacrificing procedures and safeguards which costs more manpower and money but is ultimately necessary. 

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All that remains of the launch tower, destroyed and toppled by the explosion.

 

 

 

CHALLENGER SHUTTLE

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On January 28, 1986 perhaps the most infamous space disaster of the 20th century occurred when the NASA shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. The spacecraft broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida at 11:39 am.

Disintegration occurred shortly after the failure of a joint in its right solid rocket booster during takeoff. The O-ring seals used in the joint failed as they were not designed to handle the unusually cold conditions that was observed during the previous day and the day of launch.

Much has been said of how the disaster could have been prevented but it all boils down to the decision to launch despite the temperature being far lower than the established ideal conditions for the O-ring seals. NASA managers had known about the flawed design since 1977 but they failed to address the problem properly. The fact that they downplayed the effect of the cold temperature on the O-rings is criminal and should’ve been enough to reschedule the launch.

The Challenger disaster has been used as a case study of subjects like engineering safety, workplace ethics, group decision-making and the dangers of groupthink. It became a  required reading for engineers seeking professional license in Canada and other countries.

The disaster should be enough to drive home the dangers of working with high precision rockets and the need to follow safety protocols. When it comes to volatile gases and controlled ignition there is no room for error. 

 

The cost of human life should be of greater value than the cost of delaying a launch.