On the verge of death: Near-space disasters

    Read about the space disasters that have occurred , frankly, sadly. People are very sorry, but the understanding that the efforts of the designers with the reservation of important systems, the work of the MCC to control and manage the situation, the training and heroism of the astronauts themselves - all this could not prevent the disaster, spoils the mood. In this sense, disasters that could have occurred, but were prevented by the talent of the designers, the work of the MCC, the decisive and skillful actions of the crews, or simple luck, are much more positive.


    Yes, this is Gagarin, 1950. Memento mori.

    It is hardly surprising that the incidents that put the mission on the brink of disaster began in the first flight.
    Failure of the emergency orbit system. The Vostok vehicles had a single-use double-back braking system. That is, her refusal of a single launch attempt meant the impossibility of a full-time return. Therefore, as a backup security measure, the Vostoks were launched into orbits, from which they would have left themselves in about a week, due to passive braking of the atmosphere. And this backup system failed. In order to be in the right orbit, it was necessary to turn off the rocket engines when they reached the desired speed with very high accuracy. First, the radio correction system, which measured the speed of the rocket according to radio communications with ground points, failed. Stand-by was an autonomous system that made a mistake of ~ 25 m / s. And these meters per second raised their apogee by ~ 80 km and extended the existence of Vostok-1 in orbit from 5-7 days to unacceptable 15-20,
    Failure of the standard separation system. The Vostok ship consisted of two parts - a descent vehicle and an aggregate compartment, which were separated after braking. Due to sticking of the valve, the fuel ran out 0.5-1 second earlier than necessary. The shortage of the brake pulse violated the standard logic of separating the compartments. However, after 10 minutes, the backup system worked, dividing the compartments for the triggering of thermal sensors that record the heating from the beginning of braking against the atmosphere. If this system also failed, then the descent vehicle could not take the correct orientation for braking in the atmosphere due to interference from the aggregate compartment hanging on the cables. However, even this would not have led to serious danger - the cables would have burned down, the aggregate compartment would fall off, and the descent vehicle would have taken the correct position independently, on the basis of the “vanka-vstanka” principle.
    But the greatest dangers began already at the end of the landing. Some irresponsible people doubt the heroism and high training of Gagarin due to the fact that he did not control the spacecraft in flight. Indeed, the control system of the Vostok ship during regular operation did not imply active piloting. But if Gagarin, already descending by parachute, did not act on time and correctly, in spite of the experienced stress of space flight, “carousels” after braking and delay with separation of the compartments, he would most likely die.
    Respiratory valve failure. After the parachute was opened, the spacesuit’s breathing valve refused to open (some sources say that it was overwhelmed by the parachute’s suspension system), through which outside air had to enter the spacesuit for the astronaut to breathe. Gagarin noticed the problem and managed to free the valve (according to other sources, he opened the spacesuit without touching the valve) and avoided death by suffocation.
    The risk of drowning . The Volga flowed through the landing area, and Gagarin could well be splashed there if he hadn’t done anything. It is difficult to swim in a spacesuit, in addition, there is a risk of being covered with a parachute with an almost certain death from suffocation. Gagarin underwent parachute training, and, skillfully controlling the slings, landed 1.5-2 km from the river, despite the interference from an unauthorized reserve parachute.

    Mercury redstone 4

    The second space suborbital flight of the United States on July 21, 1961 was drawing to a close. Astronaut Gus Grissom successfully splashed down and waited for the helicopter, which was to pick up the capsule and deliver it to the aircraft carrier. In anticipation, he wrote down the readings of the instruments, according to the instructions, removed the fuse for the emergency hatch shooting system, and also took off his helmet and unfastened the seat belt (this accident probably saved his life). It took about ten minutes after landing, the helicopter was already preparing to pick up the capsule for lifting, as there was a dull explosion. This arbitrarily triggered the emergency hatch reset system. Water began to fill the capsule, Grissom with all possible speed gets out. Helicopter pilots first of all begin to save the capsule - they have worked with astronauts several times and know that you can swim in a spacesuit for quite a while without the risk of drowning. But Grissom notes that it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to stay on the water - in a hurry of evacuation from the capsule, he forgot to close one of the valves of the spacesuit through which the spacesuit now draws water! The valve is closed, but there is already a lot of water in the spacesuit, Grissom can hardly keep afloat. Meanwhile, the helicopter pilot, who managed to pick up the capsule, realizes that he cannot pull it out - it has become too heavy from the water that has poured into the inside. The capsule is dropped, but the helicopter does not fly to pick up Grissom. On the contrary, he turns around and goes in the direction of the aircraft carrier! The fact is that the pilot sees on the dashboard the signal “engine overheating”, which on this model of the helicopter means about five minutes of flight until the engine fails. It makes no sense to select Grissom in such conditions. As a result, the astronaut picks up the second helicopter, after a few minutes, which, for sure, seemed to Grissom very long. After the astronaut was lifted aboard the second helicopter, the first thing he put on was a life jacket. A subsequent investigation showed that the most likely reason for the unauthorized operation of the emergency dumping system is a poor fastening of the external activation cord. The emergency manhole reset system could be activated both from the inside and the outside of the capsule. Outside, a cord was installed, which was fastened on just one screw. Poor fastening could lead to the cord being released, and the excitement at sea could create an accidental jerk of the cord, which activated the system. that the most probable reason for the unauthorized operation of the emergency hatch reset system is a poor fastening of the external activation cord. The emergency manhole reset system could be activated both from the inside and the outside of the capsule. Outside, a cord was installed, which was fastened on just one screw. Poor fastening could lead to the cord being released, and the excitement at sea could create an accidental jerk of the cord, which activated the system. that the most probable reason for the unauthorized operation of the emergency hatch reset system is a poor fastening of the external activation cord. The emergency manhole reset system could be activated both from the inside and the outside of the capsule. Outside, a cord was installed, which was fastened on just one screw. Poor fastening could lead to the cord being released, and the excitement at sea could create an accidental jerk of the cord, which activated the system.

    Incident video

    Mercury-atlas 6

    February 20, 1962. The first American astronaut (John Glenn) entered Earth orbit. According to the plan, the flight was supposed to last seven turns. But already at the beginning of the second round, telemetry from the side of the ship made the hearts of the flight control group feel cold: the illuminated indicator “segment 51” indicated that the landing shock absorber and the heat shield were not fixed.

    This meant that after braking, the heat shield would move away, and the landing shock absorber would unfold in space. The heat shield cannot protect the ship from heating when it enters the atmosphere, and the astronaut is doomed to death. MCC Cape Canaveral, without giving reasons for his concern, asked Glenn if he had heard any unusual sounds. Glenn replied that he had not heard. The MCC team sent to the communication station a requirement for operators to monitor the “segment 51” and began to look for a way to deal with the problem. The only thing that they could come up with was to block the shooting of brake engines in the descent program. The iron bands that held the brake motors to the ship could hold the heat shield at the start of the descent, and when they burn out, the shield will be held in by the pressure of the incoming air. In the third round, still not telling Glenn about the reasons for such a decision, they reported that his flight was reduced to three turns and recommended not to reset the brake engines. Glenn tried to ask about the reason for such a decision, but received the answer “Not now. This is the decision of the MCC. ” The flight was stopped after three turns, the landing took place normally. A subsequent investigation showed that the “segment 51” signal was erroneous due to a sensor malfunction; there was no real danger.

    Mercury-atlas 7

    This flight was the first in which the astronaut himself created life-threatening problems that he heroically dealt with. The fact is that the fuel tanks for Mercury’s orientation systems were very small, and if they hadn’t saved fuel on purpose, they would have been very short lived. And astronaut Scott Carpenter, working on a very busy experiment program and in uncomfortable conditions (the temperature in the cabin due to poor operation of the temperature control system reached 42 °), constantly turned the ship in different directions, not particularly monitoring fuel consumption. Already at the first turn, Carpenter spent almost all of the fuel from the automatic orientation tank, and when the MCC asked him to switch to the manual orientation tank, he spent most of the fuel from the second turn and from there. As a result, the third round had to be drifted, turning off the automatic attitude control system. Before braking, carried away by photographing and"Hunting for snowflakes"Carpenter did not pay attention to the fact that the capsule had an orientation error of 20 ° in pitch and 27 ° in yaw. Automation blocked braking, Carpenter manually turned on the brake engines. Due to the orientation error, the braking was partially "sideways", which reduced the total braking impulse. The ship flew landing point 450 km. In addition, Carpenter forgot to disable the use of a manual orientation tank, and the fuel in it ran out immediately after the end of the brake engine! The astronaut had only a few percent of fuel left in the automatic orientation tank. If it ends, the capsule will lose orientation with the heat shield forward and burn. Carpenter was lucky - the fuel ran out at an altitude of 24 km, when the loss of orientation was no longer terrible. But a flight of four hundred kilometers meant that ships and planes, allocated for the search and evacuation of the astronaut, were in another area. They searched for Carpenter for almost forty minutes, and, given that the search operation was live, the press had already begun speculating that the United States suffered the first loss in the space program. What is curious, Carpenter, it seems, until the end of his life was sure that he with honor came out of a difficult situation, not realizing that he himself had created it.

    Mercury-atlas 9

    The mission's goal was a long space flight - as much as 34 hours. The flight took place according to the program up to 19 turns (from the planned 22), on which technical problems began to appear. At first, the “0.05g” indicator came on, which during normal operation signaled the beginning of entry into the atmosphere. This was a clear malfunction, because the objects in the cabin remained weightless. Apparently, the sensor did not work correctly due to a short circuit (Cooper had problems with spills of water and urine, the liquid could short circuit the wires). The twentieth turn went into the struggle with the automatic orientation system, which took the wrong signal “0.05g” as a guide to building a landing orientation. The failure of the automatic descent program meant that it was necessary to brake manually. Cooper was read from Earth a modified sequence of operations for manual braking. Also, at the twentieth revolution, the horizon refused - to determine the position of the ship became possible only visually. At 21 turns, an increase in the partial pressure of carbon dioxide was detected - the absorber failed. Twenty minutes later, an alarm sounded in the cockpit - two short circuits occurred in the automatic orientation system. At the 22nd, last turn, the spare inverter of the automatic orientation device refused to turn on - it was possible to pilot the ship when returning from orbit only manually. Cooper manually oriented the ship to braking on the stars and night Shanghai and turned on the engines on command from Earth. The astronaut manually kept the ship on the right course, tracking the operation of brake engines by the clock, manually fired off the block of brake engines, manually oriented the ship for braking in dense layers of the atmosphere and manually piloted the ship all the way to the Earth, maintaining the correct orientation and fending off the vibrations. Despite fully manual control, Cooper managed to splash down with the least error - only 1.8 km from the calculated point.

    Sunrise 2

    On the left - Belyaev, on the right - Leonov The

    flight of Voskhod-2 turned out to be rich in deadly dangerous situations.
    Inflation Suit. The lock chamber was designed with a minimum clearance relative to Leonov's spacesuit - only 20 mm from each shoulder. Testing in the ground pressure chamber was successful. But it was impossible to create pressure below the conventional 60 km. In a real spacewalk, the spacesuit was inflated more than expected, and Leonov discovered that he could not get back into the lock chamber. I had to take risks - put the spacesuit in low pressure mode. The danger was that, if there was still a lot of nitrogen in Leonov’s blood, such a decision led to decompression sickness, with the risk of loss of consciousness and death. Leonov remembered that he had been breathing pure oxygen for an hour, there was almost no nitrogen in the blood. The risk was justified, the "thinner" spacesuit got into the lock chamber. Violating the following paragraph of the instructions, Leonov climbed into the airlock with his head forward (it was easier to get in this way) and turned his feet forward in the airlock. Returning to the ship, Leonov tried to wipe his eyes and could not - the face was literally flooded with sweat.
    Violation of the composition of the atmosphere. When Leonov went into outer space, the ship did not rotate. This led to the fact that the hatch was heated unevenly by the sun. Uneven heating led to uneven expansion of the hatch, and, after closing, a small gap remained between the hatch and the body. A small air leak led to the fact that the system for maintaining the composition of the atmosphere began to supply oxygen to the cockpit. Oxygen increased, the atmosphere of the ship became extremely fire hazard. The slightest spark - and even those materials that do not burn in ordinary air will catch fire. The crew’s actions to correct the situation - setting the temperature and humidity to a minimum and shutting off the oxygen supply valve did not correct the situation. The problem was aggravated by the fact that the increased partial pressure of oxygen led to oxygen intoxication of the astronauts. After several hours from stress and intoxication, the astronauts fell asleep. The accident saved - Leonov threw a hose over the air supply toggle switch from the reserve cylinders, the overpressure squeezed the hatch, and the atmosphere began to normalize.
    Failure of the automatic landing system . At the right time, the brake motors did not turn on. For the first time in the history of Soviet astronautics, astronauts had to perform a manual landing. The matter was complicated by the fact that the controls were placed in the same way as in the "East", and the crew seats were rotated. Leonov had to hold Belyaev by the legs, while he oriented the ship toward braking. Then the astronauts quickly took places in the lodgements and started the engines. The delay due to the need to sit in the lodges led to an error regarding the planned landing site for ~ 80 km.
    The last adventure for the crew of Voskhod-2 was a cold night. It was not deadly, but it caused trouble. The fact is that the ship landed in a dense forest where helicopters could not land. Warm clothes and food were dropped from the helicopter, rescuers came quickly enough, but the astronauts left the landing area (early spring, -25 ° C, snow, forest) only on the third day. And the unhealthy secrecy surrounding the space program of the USSR led to the fact that while the astronauts were in the taiga, the press wrote that they were resting at the dacha of the regional party committee.

    The film about Leonov

    Popular science series "Outer Space". About Voskhod-2 from 45 minutes.


    December 12, 1965. The ship "Gemini-6" with the crew consisting of Walter Shirra and Thomas Stafford is preparing for launch. The countdown of the last ten seconds before the start begins, the engines start to start, but, suddenly, with some unusual squeal, the engines stop:

    According to the instructions, the astronauts had to eject. But, firstly, they did not feel any movement, which indicated that the rocket was not going to fall or explode. And secondly, they really did not want to catapult. Even without considering the transfer of the mission to restore the ship after bailout, a very powerful catapult made this event very risky. In addition, astronauts saw an unsuccessful test of a catapult with a mannequin - a very small delay in the shooting of the hatch led to the fact that the chair with the mannequin knocked out the hatch on its own. Some sources wrote that the mannequin had its head torn off. Yes, then, for sure, there were successful trials, but in any case, the risk was great. At the risk of not catapulting (what if the rocket still exploded?), The astronauts made the right decision.
    The investigation showed that the reason for the cancellation of the launch was a cable that departed from the rocket ahead of time. At the same time, a drop in the thrust of one of the engines was detected by telemetry. They went through the engine and found a plastic plug that was forgotten at the entrance to the gas generator. Ironically, the cable that fell off saved the mission - a drop in the thrust of one of the engines meant that a normal launch was impossible, but if the rocket had managed to break away from the launch pad at least a centimeter, its fall back clearly meant the launch of the launch vehicle, the destruction of the ship and the need to eject astronauts ( and if they catapulted too late?).


    March 16, 1966. Gemini-8 with a crew of Neil Armstrong and David Scott successfully holds the first ever docking in space. But 27 minutes after it, the connected Gemini and the Agen target begin to spin. Armstrong dampens the rotation with shunting engines, but as soon as it stops controlling, the rotation starts again. Thinking that “Agen” is to blame, the crew makes an emergency undocking:

    However, the rotation not only does not stop, but begins to accelerate even faster. Rotation becomes life-threatening - from overload, the crew may lose consciousness and die. Having a few seconds left, Armstrong correctly determines the cause of the accident (one of the orientation system engines is working abnormally), disables the OAMS main orientation system engines, turns on the RCS landing orientation system and extinguishes the rotation. It takes ten minutes to stabilize the ship and most of the fuel in the RCS system. The mission had to be prematurely interrupted, and landing in the reserve area. The abnormal landing area meant a three-hour wait for rescuers, and instead of a comfortable ascent to the aircraft carrier, Armstrong and Scott had to climb the destroyer by storm trap.

    What next?

    The volume of publication means dividing into several parts - the catastrophes that almost happened after 1966 will be the next part. Approximately in a week - next week I plan to conduct an online broadcast of the lecture "History of Cosmonautics" , which will be on Saturday September 27, at 17:00 Moscow time.

    A bit of reasoning

    About the instructions . It is curious, but despite the fact that instructions are usually written in blood, in these stories we see not so rare a violation of them. Leonov had an instruction "to report everything." But at the same time, he clearly understood the risk and necessity of his actions: “a critical situation arose, and there was no time to consult with the Earth. As long as I reported them ... until they would be consulted ... " . The Gemini 6 astronauts also had good reasons to violate the bailout instructions - they did not feel the rocket moving, the risk of falling and exploding was low.
    About independent actions . In the case when there is no time, but it is necessary to decide, a qualified crew can very well cope with an emergency situation - Leonov and Armstrong are an example of this.
    The importance of risk management. Most of these stories show how useful it is to think ahead of time about possible accidents and take safety measures.
    About false alarms . It is good to have enough information available to determine if a real alarm or false.

    List of sources used:

    In addition to Wikipedia ( there is an excellent list there ) the following were used:
    1. Chertok Boris Evseevich, “Rockets and People” in 4 books.
    2. Kamanin Nikolay Petrovich, “Hidden Space”, diaries in 4 books.
    3. “When We Left Earth”, Discovery Channel, TV series 2008.
    4. Encyclopedia “World Manned Cosmonautics: History. Equipment. People "under the editorship of Yu.M. Baturin.

    For navigation: a series of "space disasters and incidents . "

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