Investigating Space Tragedies

We Learn from Tragedies as Well as Successes

The Antares rocket exploding within seconds of liftoff, October 28th, 2014. NASA

Life and Death in Space Exploration

Throughout the history of aeronautics and space exploration, space tragedies ​​have made us aware of just how dangerous both human and robotic missions to space can be. Each step of a mission is a potential hazard, and crews train incessantly to avoid problems. In addition, each tragedy has taught space agencies about safer materials, procedures, and technical design, all to help avoid similar problems in future missions.

Space accidents happen. That's an unfortunate truth that test pilots and others involved in the exploration of space have known for years. Sometimes these things happen to machines, and sometimes they kill people. 

Each year, NASA commemorates the fallen heroes who died in service to the nation's space program. Some were killed during missions, others while preparing for them. Other countries' astronauts have died in the line of duty, and in all cases, the investigations began immediately, to help everyone understand what went wrong and how to fix it.

Loss of Space Explorers

On January 27, 1967, three Apollo astronauts died in a fire while training in their capsule at Cape Kennedy. They were Ed White, Virgil Grissom, and Roger Chaffee, and their deaths shocked the world. 

Nineteen years and one day later, on January 28, 1986, the Challenger shuttle exploded 71 seconds after liftoff, killing astronauts Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnick, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Mike J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, and teacher-in-space astronaut Sharon Christa McAuliffe. 

On February 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, killing astronauts Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Blair Salton Clark.  

Cosmonauts flying for the former Soviet Union also lost their lives. On April 24, 1967, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when the parachute on his earth-returning spacecraft failed. He plummeted to his death. In 1971, Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladisav Volkov died in their Soyuz 11 craft when an air valve malfunctioned and they suffocated before reaching Earth. 

These mishaps remind us that space is a risky business. They haven't happened only to NASA, but to every space-faring agency. The Soviet Union has lost astronauts as well, in space accidents that claimed the lives of Vladimir Komarov (1967), Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov (1971).  If you add in the ground-based mishaps (such as ground accidents), ten other space explorers have lost their lives.

Many other astronauts have died while in training in the U.S. and Soviet Union. Each incident was an unfortunate lesson for space agencies to learn. 

Loss of Experimental Craft

Recent accidents befell Orbital Sciences Corporation on Tuesday, October 28, 2014 and the Spaceship Two team on October 31, 2014. In one case an expensive rocket and experiments, along with supplies for the International Space Station were lost, and in the second case the life of Michael Alsbury, who was the pilot of Spaceship Two. On June 28, 2015, SpaceX lost a Falcon 9 booster taking supplies to the ISS, just a few months after the Russian space agency also lost a resupply ship. 

Troubleshooting and Investigations

From the beginnings of air and space flight, in the maritime industry (for military, cargo, private, and cruise ships), and other transport businesses, there have been procedures in place to investigate accidents and use what is learned from one accident to prevent another. Rocket history is filled with accidents and mishaps that the industry learned from and used to improve their product.

So it is with NASA, the European Space Agency, the Russian Space Agency, the Chinese, Japanese, and Indian space organizations. It's just good standard operating procedure. Mishaps are costly in terms of money, but also in lives and time. 

How Investigations Work

Let's take a look at what happens during a critical event in a space-related mission. This is not a complete list of what happens, but more of a general idea of how people investigate crashes and other catastrophes.

Those watching an Antares launch at Wallops Island, VA, on October 27, 2014 heard a flurry of commands issued as soon as the rocket came crashing to Earth. One of those commands was to "secure consoles." This saved all the data available at the time of, leading up to, and events occurring during the incident. Telemetry (transmitted) data from the rocket and the launch support areas tells investigators what was happening to the rocket and the launch site up to the time of the accident. All communications are saved, as well. It all becomes crucially important during the followup investigation.

NASA launch sites are equipped with camera systems that image a spacecraft and its launch from many angles of view. Images are incredibly valuable when reconstructing an accident. During the breakup of the Challenger shuttle in 1986, there were more than 150 camera views of the launch. Some of them showed the first hints of the solid rocket booster blowout that ultimately destroyed the shuttle 73 seconds later. 

NASA and other organizations have procedures to follow during investigations, and they are in place to get the most accurate information about an incident.The same procedures were in place to investigate the crash of SpaceShip Two. The companies involved, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, followed well-established guidelines for crash investigations, and the National Transportation Safety Board was also involved. 

Failures and accidents are an unfortunate part of spaceflight and advanced aviation. They are teachable moments from which the participants learn how to make the next steps work better. It may take awhile in the case of these two accidents to come to a full understanding of what happened, but the procedures these companies and organizations follow help make the task easier.