6 mishaps in the history of spaceflight

Slip-ups can happen anywhere, including space, where not everything always goes to plan.

Artist's illustration of an astronaut in Earth orbit dropping a bag of tools

Science fiction may have informed us in 1979 via Alien that “In space no one can hear you scream”, but the verbal anguish from control centres here on Earth when space missions go wrong has at times been all too loud and clear.

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Take the Hubble Space Telescope. It was soon apparent after the $1.5 billion instrument was deployed in April 1990 that something was awry: the long-awaited crystal-clear views of the heavens looked worryingly blurry.

Instead of a sequence of glorious pictures, Hubble squinted hopelessly into the distance. But a 1993 spacewalk corrected the flaw in Hubble’s mirror, just 1/50th the thickness of a human hair, and the telescope has exceeded expectations ever since.

Spiral galaxy M100. Left: image taken in 1993 with Hubble's flawed primary mirror. Right: image taken by the Wide Field Camera-3 after it was installed in 2009. Credit: NASA
Spiral galaxy M100. Left: image taken in 1993 with Hubble’s flawed primary mirror. Right: image taken by the Wide Field Camera-3 after it was installed in 2009. Credit: NASA

Mars isn’t called the graveyard of spacecraft for nothing, but the cause of one mission failure must have been particularly hard to bear.

Designed to study the planet from orbit and provide a communications relay, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter instead met a fiery death in the Martian atmosphere in September 1999.

It was later found that the $125 million craft was sent off course by a misunderstanding between the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who used metric measurements in their calculations, and the team at Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, who built the orbiter using imperial inches and feet.

An artist's impression of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist’s impression of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In what was to have been a triumph for the European Space Agency (ESA), Beagle 2 was despatched to Mars with a touchdown date of 25 December 2003.

However, there was no Christmas Day greeting from the Red Planet, just an ominous silence.

ESA eventually learned what had become of Beagle 2 in January 2015, after images of it on the Martian surface revealed that it had touched down but hadn’t deployed all its solar panels.

Without enough power, poor Beagle couldn’t even muster a lonely howl from the dusty surface.

Humanity’s orbiting outpost, the International Space Station (ISS), hasn’t been immune from mishap either.

Who can forget the tool bag that drifted slowly away from a spacewalking astronaut’s desperate grasp in November 2008.

A decade later, in August 2018, the crew, alerted to a sudden drop in cabin pressure, discovered a tiny 2mm hole in the Russian Soyuz module that was docked with the ISS.

Said to be caused by a drill slip during a repair job on Earth, it was patched up with epoxy and tape.

More recently, the arrival of the Nauka module at the ISS sent it into a spin, literally.

Almost 15 years late for its first planned launch, when the Roscosmos (Russian space agency) lab docked in July 2021, an unplanned burn of its engines caused the whole ISS to rotate one and a half times before the fuel ran out.

A hole was discovered in the Soyuz MS-09 vehicle docked to the International Space Station in 2018. Credit: NASA
A hole was discovered in the Soyuz MS-09 vehicle docked to the International Space Station in 2018. Credit: NASA

However, like the great, perilous sea voyages of maritime history, when the prospect of a tall ship arriving at a distant shore instilled a spirit of adventure, that same spirit continues with those who are expanding the frontiers of human exploration today.

Despite the mishaps, in 2021 three nations sent scientific craft safely to Mars, and with successful launches, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic between them have begun a new era of civilian spaceflight.

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This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.