When space travel goes horribly wrong

Nobody ever said reaching for the stars was going to be easy

It's a thing of marvel when all it goes to plan, but as we' e learnt things don't always go to plan. Houston, we've had a problem...

Our understanding of the universe may be growing, but that doesn’t mean we’re now incapable of the odd cock-up, and any number of embarassing incidents have occurred under the influence of zero gravity.

Luckily, in the vast vacuum of space, nobody can hear you swearing profusely...

"A problem, certainly"

Commander James Lovell actually said, "Houston we've had a problem," in 1970, and it's impressive he was so reserved. Following an explosion on board, the three-man crew of Apollo 13 lost the oxygen supply and all electrical power in their service module. The crew were forced to use the lunar module to tow the rest of the vessel back to Earth, before jettisoning it and the service module. Despite limited power, extreme cabin heat and the fact that one of the crew had picked up a nasty urinary tract infection through lack of water, everyone survived. Ron Howard was so pleased by this, he subsequently made a film about it all.

Butter fingers

During this year's mission to "spruce up" the International Space Station, hapless NASA astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper's grease gun went off inside her tool bag. As she tried to clean up the mess, she lost grip of the bag,which had $100,000-worth of specialist tools in it, and had to watch helplessly as it floated into space. Let's hope, for her sake, they didn't deduct it from her salary.


NASA's $278 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory - a 300-pound satellite designed to identify where carbon dioxide is absorbed on the Earth and thus help us to handle the effects of climate change - met with failure just ten minutes into its mission.According to NASA, "A protective shell covering the satellite on the Taurus rocket didn't separate, leaving the OCO too weighty to reach orbit". Anyone got another $278 million? Let's have a quick whip round.

Failure to launch

In 1957 the US made its first attempt to launch a satellite - the Vanguard TV3 - into orbit. On December 6, the TV3 launched successfully... for two seconds. It reached the heady height of four feet before the rocket it was attached to lost thrust and sank back down to earth causing its fuel tanks to explode. The rocket was completely destroyed, but the satellite's transmitters were still signalling from the wreckage - the readings didn't look encouraging.

Mars Attacks

In 2003, thousands of unhinged abductees waited with baited breath for definitive proof that Martians existed, but it wasn't to be. British spacecraft Beagle 2 - a bargain at £22 million - launched from the Mars Express mothership and made its descent towards Mars, then lost signal before landing. The official statement, two months of searching later: " We lost it". Professor Colin Pillinger has since asked the American space programme if it will help find the missing space probe - oh, the indignity...

Motion sickness

In 1966, three years before he became the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong and crew mate David R Scott were part of a manned spaceflight on NASA's Gemini 8. During docking, the Gemini 8 went into a spin. At one point the spacecraft was making a vomitinducingone revolution per second, leaving Armstrong and Scott in danger of blackout - which they prevented by holding their heads still. When later asked how he felt at the time, Armstrong is reported to have said, "I suspect you could categorise it as anxiety."

Space junk

With 17,000 colossal chunks of space debris - an estimated 6,000 of them satellites launched since 1957 - orbiting Earth, things are getting a bit crowded up there. All that congestion led to a collision earlier this year. The US commercial Iridium spacecraft shunted a defunct Russian satellite 500 miles over Siberia. The impact left a cloud of debris, which it's hoped will fall to Earth and burn up on re-entry. We trust the Iridium had fully comprehensive insurance cover, or that's going to cost the US an awful lot of money and their no-claims bonus will be knackered.

Space monkeys

One plan the human race never lost faith in throughout the space race was putting animals in rockets and blasting them out of Earth's atmosphere. Intrepid animal adventurers include: fruit flies 1947), mice (1950), dogs (1951 onwards), monkeys (1958 onwards), guinea pigs (1961 onwards), frogs (1970) and even tortoises (1968). None of these brave animals were ever seen again. Has anyone got the RSPCA's number?

Space Pen

Stop us if you've heard this one before: during the space race in the 1960s, US astronauts found pens would not function in the vacuum of space, so they invested $1.5 million developing one that did. The Russians also encountered this problem, so they used... a pencil. Sadly, it turns out this too-perfect story is an urban myth and in fact both the US and the Russians initially used pencils. A pressurised pen was eventually developed, which both countries now use. That's the spirit.

Weather Woes

In 1986, the same year as the Challenger disaster, NASA launched the NOAA weather satellite. Unfortunately, 71 seconds after lift-off, the Delta 3194 rocket to which it was attached malfunctioned, its first-stage engine shutting down due to an electrical fault. The rocket then had to be hastily destroyed to avoid it hurtling back to Earth in an almighty, hellish ball of fire.