There are many hidden dangers in space travel which are unknown to us. Some of the issues faced by astronauts are closed and cramped cabin space, spacecraft travelling faster than sound, zero gravity, and rockets that leave fiery trails. Astronauts are trained to handle these situations, but accidents in space exploration do happen at times, owing to miscalculations or other reasons. Some of them have turned out to be major tragedies in history.
The history of space exploration is replete with minor as well as major tragedies like the disasters that happened to the space shuttle Challenger – which burst into flames just after it took off – and to the space shuttle Columbia – which exploded when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven who were on board.
Let us look at some of the major accidents and disasters that have happened during space travel.
Water inside helmet
On July 16, 2013, Italian astronaut Luka Parmitano of the European Space Agency, took a spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS), when water started leaking into his helmet. It was the 36th expedition to the International Space Station.
During the spacewalk (also known as walking outside the space station, or floating), Parmitano’s helmet began to unexpectedly fill with water. Being in space, the water was freely floating around his head. As a result, Parmitano was unable to speak to his fellow astronauts or listen to them. The problem was caused by a small leak in the liquid coolant system inside the suit.
Parmitano did the spacewalk with water around his head for about an hour, and thus became the second person to make the shortest spacewalk in the history of the International Space Station. According to Space.com, the water leakage nearly drowned him and it was one of the scariest close calls in NASA’s spacewalk history.
The Challenger disaster
The disaster of the US space shuttle Challenger happened on January 28, 1986. It was the biggest disaster in the history of space exploration. A minute after the spacecraft launched, an O-ring (the silicone seal that separates the rocket boosters) caught fire and spread to the rocket. The accident happened while the spacecraft was flying faster than the speed of sound. All seven astronauts aboard the Challenger died.
Those on earth could see the spacecraft explode within seconds of taking off. The Challenger was launched at a temperature of minus 3 degrees Celsius. Even before the launch, some had speculated that the O-rings could be damaged at such low temperatures, which could lead to accidents. However, NASA had decided to go ahead with the launch as it had been postponed several times. NASA suspended the space shuttle program temporarily after the Challenger disaster.
When lightning struck Apollo 12
The Apollo 12 mission, which landed man on the moon for the second time, also met with accidents.
On November 14, 1969, Apollo 12 was struck by lightning twice on the upper part of the spacecraft, while surging up from Earth. The lightning had the power to burn the spacecraft. The first lightning strike could be seen by the crowd that came to watch the launch. After inspection, the authorities determined that the spacecraft had not suffered any damage and that the mission was safe and could proceed with the launch.
Apollo 12 also faced some problems while returning to the Earth after the lunar mission. When the spacecraft landed in the Pacific Ocean on November 24, a big wave hit it. A camera inside the spacecraft fell on the head of astronaut Alan Bean.
Vladimir Komarov was one of the first Soviet cosmonauts to be selected for space travel. He was also the first Russian to enter outer space twice.
Soyuz 1 was Soviet Russia's first space mission aimed at landing a man on the Moon. However, Komarov’s space travel dreams ended along with his life owing to certain flaws in the design of the spacecraft.
It was a very dangerous and difficult mission. Two spacecraft were part of that mission. The plan was to launch Soyuz 1 first, and once it was in an orbit around the Earth, it would encounter Soyuz 2, the spacecraft that would be subsequently launched. The orbiting speeds of both spacecraft were to be adjusted accordingly. Thus, Soyuz 1 carrying Komarov was launched, and it orbited the Earth, but when the time came to launch Soyuz 2, it had to be called off following some glitches.
One of the solar panels of Soyuz 1 was not working, and the spacecraft ceased to get enough power. Difficulties arose in controlling the spacecraft due to the malfunction of a device that was supposed to run on energy from that solar panel. Realising that it was impossible to go ahead with the mission, Komarov prepared to return to Earth. Despite many obstacles, he reached the Earth’s atmosphere, but the parachutes on the Soyuz 1 malfunctioned. The spacecraft crash-landed on April 24, 1967, and Vladimir Komarov died.
When exercising went wrong
Space travellers need to maintain good physical health, so space stations generally have equipment for exercising onboard. During his 1995 voyage to Russia’s modular space station Mir, astronaut Norman Thagard attempted to exercise with one of those devices and one of the straps of that device hit him in the eye.
The Columbia disaster
The Columbia disaster occurred on February 1, 2003. It was another tearful memory in the history of space exploration that compromised NASA’s space shuttle programme, after the Challenger disaster.
The accident happened because a suitcase-sized piece of insulation foam fell from the external fuel tank of the spacecraft and hit the left wing of the spacecraft, making a hole. The insulation foam of the fuel tank protects the tank from overheating and prevents the formation of ice over it. Though NASA officials were aware of this at the time, they had not realised how dangerous it would be since the camera lacked clarity. When Columbia successfully completed its mission and attempted to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, smoke and gases entered through this hole and the left wing exploded.
With just seven minutes to land, Columbia disintegrated. Seven astronauts, including Indian-born Kalpana Chawla, died. NASA suspended the space shuttle programme again after that crash.
The first US-Soviet joint space programme, the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, took place in July 1975. It also put an end to the space programme rivalry between the two countries.
On returning to Earth, Apollo’s reaction control system (RCS) malfunctioned and toxic nitrogen tetroxide began to flow into the cabin.
Two spacecraft were launched as a part of the mission – one carrying three Americans, and the other carrying two Russians. The two spacecraft had a rendezvous in the orbit around the Earth and were docked to each other. The crew on both spacecraft moved back and forth, embraced each other, exchanged gifts, and conducted experiments.
On returning to Earth, Apollo’s reaction control system (RCS) malfunctioned and toxic nitrogen tetroxide began to flow into the cabin. Fortunately, as soon as the spacecraft landed, the cabin was ventilated. The astronauts, who suffered from a specific type of pneumonia caused by inhaling the poisonous gas, eventually recovered.
Space exploration is essential as it helps to address fundamental questions about our place in the Universe and the history of our solar system. However, there are risks involved in these programmes and these need to be addressed and studied. Space agencies across the world are researching ways to reduce the risks involved in space travel.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the reasons for the Columbia disaster?
Can you think of the ways to reduce risk factors in space travel?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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