Narrow escapes: When space missions almost ended in disaster

From rockets on fire with astronauts on board to crew capsules tumbling uncontrollably in orbit, space exploration is a risky business

FILE PHOTO: The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying the crew of astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo
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Space exploration involves human bravery and ingenuity but it comes with risks, with the line between triumph and disaster in missions being terrifyingly thin.

Throughout the history of space travel, astronauts and cosmonauts have faced dire situations that required quick thinking to ensure survival and mission success.

From the infamous Apollo 13 incident in 1970 to more recent emergencies on the International Space Station, each incident has been a valuable lesson to space agencies and companies to improve safety protocols and advance technology.

With many critical moments in space exploration, The National lists some of the most harrowing near-misses that have shaped the course of mission safety and innovation.

'We have serious problems here'

Before Neil Armstrong and David Scott became famous for walking on the Moon, they had to test technology that would be used for the Apollo programme.

They were rookie astronauts when they were assigned to the Gemini VIII mission in 1966 – the first mission to carry out a successful docking in space.

Even though the feat was achieved, moments after docking their spacecraft started rolling unexpectedly.

Mr Scott turned off the thrusters of docking vehicle, the Agena, while his colleague reactivated the Gemini’s to regain control of the spacecraft.

It solved the problem temporarily but then the vehicle started to tumble even faster, with the fuel down to 30 per cent.

“We have serious problems here. We’re tumbling end over end,” Mr Scott said to mission control in Houston.

To regain control, the astronauts shut down the main thruster system and activated the re-entry system.

This decision, while it resulted in the mission being cut short, potentially saved their lives and the spacecraft.

Both crew members went on to have stellar careers as astronauts, with Mr Armstrong becoming the first man to step foot on the Moon only three years later.

Apollo 13 explosion

The Apollo 13 mission, known as a "successful failure", demonstrated remarkable crisis management in space.

After an oxygen tank explosion crippled their spacecraft en route to the Moon, the crew, with mission control's help, repurposed the lunar module as a makeshift survival pod.

The module, however, was not equipped to support three people for an extended period and soon filled with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide.

To combat this, the astronauts – Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert – cleverly adapted square carbon dioxide scrubbers from the main spacecraft to fit the round receptacles in the lunar module using plastic bags and duct tape.

They also conserved energy by shutting off non-essential systems, ensuring they had enough power for a safe return.

The crew spent 87 hours in this lifeboat set-up before safely landing back on Earth, cutting their planned eight-day mission short.

Fire during rocket launch

The Soyuz T-10-1 mission in 1983 faced disaster on the launch pad when a fuel spill led to a massive fire.

With two Soviet astronauts on board, the fully fuelled rocket was soon engulfed in flames, with the situation looking grim.

But the automated launch-escape system worked, activating only seconds before a large explosion.

The system detected the fire and the impending risk of a blast, rapidly propelling the capsule away from the rocket to a safe distance where it could then descend back to the ground via parachute.

The event showed how important these systems were and as such they have since become standard in crew safety protocols.

This incident also caused extensive reviews of Soviet launch protocol, leading to improved safety checks.

Uncertainty over UAE's first space mission

With past disasters becoming a lesson for space agencies, astronauts have been better equipped to handle tough situations in the modern space era, thanks to improved safety technology embedded into rocket systems.

In 2018, the Soyuz MS-10 mission experienced critical failure when the rocket’s side boosters failed to separate.

The incident took place about two minutes into the flight, at an altitude of about 50km, with a Nasa astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut on board the spacecraft.

The spacecraft's emergency escape system was immediately activated, propelling the capsule about 1.5km from the troubled rocket.

The crew then experienced a high-G ballistic descent, reaching forces of up to 6.7Gs, before landing safely about 400km from the launch site.

This harrowing event led to a temporary suspension of Soyuz flights for about two months as the Russian space agency investigated the problem.

It also cast uncertainty over the UAE's inaugural mission to the International Space Station, postponing the flight of Hazza Al Mansouri, the nation's first astronaut.

He was eventually blasted off into in September 2019, following a delay from the originally scheduled February 2019 departure.

Flushed away in space

While this problem in space was not life-threatening, it still created a messy situation for four astronauts to handle.

The toilet aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule that was bringing home four astronauts from the ISS sprang a leak and Nasa's Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide had to resort to maximum absorbency garments – or astronaut nappies – as backup.

A tube used to funnel urine into a storage tank became detached, creating a leaky mess hidden on the floor of the capsule.

Once the spacecraft was back on Earth, SpaceX had to work quickly to resolve the problem, because tourists who paid millions of dollars for their tickets would soon be flying next in the capsule.

Updated: June 01, 2024, 10:40 AM