They are among the most highly trained people on Earth, working with some of the most complex machinery ever invented. But astronauts and cosmonauts are only human, and sometimes—whether through faulty equipment, operator error, or just plain bad luck—things can go awry in space. Although almost every U.S. and Russian space mission over the past half-century has been successful, a few are remembered for what didn’t go right.
The world’s first spacewalk, for example, nearly ended in tragedy. On March 18, 1965, Alexei Leonov (pictured above) spent just over 12 minutes outside his spacecraft, connected to it by a 17-foot-long tether. When he tried to come back in, he found that his spacesuit had overinflated, and he was unable to fit through his capsule’s airlock. Finally, Leonov opened a valve that released some of the pressure, and was able (barely) to get back inside.
See the gallery below for more space goofs.
Mir commander Vasily Tsibliyev was docking a Progress cargo ship by remote control in June 1997 when he lost sight of the unmanned spacecraft and it careened into the Russian space station. The Progress damaged a solar panel (pictured) and punched a hole in the Spektr science module, causing the first depressurization in space. Flight engineer Aleksandr Lazutkin and NASA astronaut Michael Foale quickly sealed off Spektr and kept the station from having to be abandoned.
Caught on the Cable
Working on the moon in April 1972, Apollo 16 commander John Young (shown here exploring Plum Crater) caught his boot on a cable for a lunar soil experiment, breaking the line off from its electronics package and ruining the project. “That kind of thing is almost unavoidable,” Young said in a post-mission debrief. “If the cables are way up off the ground, you never knew whether you were stepping on them or not. When you are standing in one-sixth gravity with a backpack (and a remote control unit on the chest) on, you’re looking about three to four inches in front of your toes…. I didn’t know I’d done it. And I certainly didn’t mean to.”
Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper was making repairs during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on STS-126 in November 2008 when a grease gun somehow squirted lubricant inside her tool bag. As she cleaned the goo from her gloves, the bag (pictured) floated away. “Oh, great,” she sighed. She had to borrow tools from her fellow spacewalker to finish her chores.
Chasing $7 Million
Astronaut Pierre Thuot’s $7 million capture bar (above) failed to latch on to a wayward Intelsat VI satellite on STS-49 in May 1992, setting the stage for one of the most dramatic spacewalks in shuttle history. After Thuot missed on several tries, the crew devised and faxed down to mission control a plan to send three spacewalkers to grab Intelsat by hand and bring it into the cargo bay. The first (and so far only) three-person spacewalk produced an iconic image for the shuttle program.
While lunar module pilot Alan Bean (above) was setting up the first Apollo color TV camera on the moon during Apollo 12 in November 1969, he inadvertently pointed it at the sun, burning it out. In a post-flight briefing, commander Pete Conrad complained that he and Bean never even saw the camera until they operated it on the moon; in simulations on Earth, they had trained with a block of wood as a substitute. By the time Apollo 14 landed, in February 1971, the camera had been fitted with a lens cap to prevent similar solar burnouts.
No shuttle payload was more snake-bitten than the Italian-built Tethered Satellite System, designed to study the electrodynamics of a tether in the upper atmosphere. The first time it went into space, in 1992, a protruding bolt kept the tether from going out beyond 840 feet. When reflown on STS-75 in February 1996, the tether, at just short of the full deployment of 12.8 miles, snapped, sending the experiment hurtling off into space.
Perhaps the best known space gaffe was Neil Armstrong’s blown line as he stepped on the moon on July 20, 1969. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” radioed the Apollo 11 commander. But without an “a” before “man,” the statement makes no sense. “Reasonable people will realize that I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement,” the astronaut told biographer James Hansen. “I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable.” Only the most blue-haired grammarians would refuse. The rest of us are more forgiving.
The STS-87 crew, which flew in November 1997, had all sorts of problems with the Spartan-201-04 satellite, designed for a two-day study of the sun. First the crew failed to send a critical computer command to have Spartan orient itself in space once it was deployed. Then rookie astronaut Kalpana Chawla (who would later perish in the 2003 Columbia accident) tried to grab it with the shuttle’s robot arm but closed the arm’s latches too soon, and an inadvertent bump from the arm sent Spartan tumbling away. It finally took two spacewalking astronauts (above) to capture it by hand. The satellite was reflown the following October on STS-95, the flight that returned 77-year-old John Glenn to space.
A Thousand Words
On Gemini 10, spacewalker (and future Apollo 11 astronaut) Michael Collins had double trouble: Both his micrometeorite shield and his Hasselblad 70-mm camera floated away from his chest pack. The July 1966 mission was the second successful docking with the Gemini Agena Target Vehicle (seen above, through the Gemini window), and Collins always rued the loss of his photos, writing in his 1974 book Carrying the Fire: “This roll of film must have at least a dozen of the most spectacular pictures ever taken in the space program—wide-angle pictures of Gemini, Earth, and Agena—and now it is gone! Adios, beautiful pictures.”