Top 5 Space Exploration Mishaps of 2008

Houston, our toy rocket appears to be on fire. Photo by Jurvetson (flickr)

In the last 12 months, we’ve seen some of the most astonishing advances in space exploration technology. From SpaceX launching the first commercial rocket into Earth orbit to seeing the first Chinese spacewalk, all of our endeavours in space will help develop the future of manned spaceflight. Even the recently published Time Magazine Top 10 Scientific Discoveries list space and physics endeavours high up the list.

However, there is a flip-side to this coin. Fortunately there has been no loss of life through manned spaceflight in 2008, but we’ve had our fair share of mishaps. Some have been expensive, some just embarrassing, but each one has taught us what to do, and what not to do, as we begin to venture further from the protective atmosphere of Earth. So, to recognise our mistakes, and move on from them, here are the Top 5 Space Exploration mishaps of 2008…

5. The Chinese Shenzhou-7 Pre-Launch Gaffe

"I can see the curvature of the Earth, it's beautiful!"... "Oops, hold on, you haven't launched yet."

"I can see the curvature of the Earth, it's beautiful!"... "Oops, hold on, you haven't launched yet."

As the world waited in anticipation for the China’s biggest leap into space, the state-run website caused controversy whilst the Long-March II-F rocket waited on the launchpad to carry three taikonauts into orbit to complete the nation’s first ever space walk. Xinhuanet.com posted an article describing the future communications between mission control and the orbiting Shenzhou-7 spaceship. In vivid detail, the ‘script’ described everything from the excited dialogue by the crew looking down on Earth to describing the round of applause the mission received back on the ground.

This, of course, ignited the conspiracy theories that the whole event was about to be faked, and certainly didn’t help the sustained attempts by the Chinese regime critics to discredit the actual spacewalk. Alas, it was most likely a script prepared by the Chinese space agency to ensure everybody said and did the right thing on the day. Still, it was an embarrassment for China, especially as an AP journalist was able to copy the text of the press release and republish it. Officials pulled the article from the site (after a couple of hours) and put it down to a “technical error”.

4. The ISS $100,000 Toolbag Drop

The ISS toolbag a.k.a. $100,000 meteroid (NASA)

The ISS toolbag a.k.a. $100,000 meteroid (NASA)

Astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper became famous for all the wrong reasons during the STS-126 November shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS). This operation was dubbed as the “home improvements mission” where a team of seven astronauts successfully upgraded the station to cope with an expanded crew of six in 2009, plus fix a stiff joint attached to one of the solar arrays during a series of space walks.

However, during one of her EVAs, Stefanyshyn-Piper had a grease gun explode inside her toolbag. As she struggled to clean the mess from her camera, she accidentally lost her grip on the toolbag and it drifted away from the station. Obviously frustrated, she uttered, “Oh great!” as she saw the $100,000-worth bag o’ tools fall toward the Earth. That toolbag became one of the largest, and most expensive items of space debris to be accidentally lost from the ISS…

3. The Wallops Island Firework

Impressive firework! Oh, hold on... that wasn't supposed to happen (NASA)

Impressive firework! Oh, hold on... that wasn't supposed to happen (NASA)

On August 22nd, a seemingly “routine” sounding rocket launch ended in disaster. However, it did confirm that the “launch abort” system was working as it should.

In the early hours of that summer morning, an Alliant Techsystems (ATK) ALV X-1 rocket blasted into the sky and NASA was videoing the whole event. As the hypersonic rocket zipped through the sky on a sub-orbital trajectory to deliver two NASA atmospheric experiments, the range safety officer hit the big red button and destroyed the rocket. The vehicle made for a nice firework blast, but it was an expensive loss. The brand new ALV X-1 plus NASA payload cost $17 million; it had travelled only 11,000 feet into the atmosphere after 27 seconds of flight.

Presumably, the rocket suffered an anomaly during launch, possibly causing it to travel off-course. Regardless, the ALV X-1 was toast and people living near the launch site were kindly asked not to approach any debris in case it was toxic. Probably the most damaging thing about this loss was that the US news channels played the explosion on a continuous loop for the whole of the day. Most people probably didn’t know what went on at NASA’s launch facility at Wallops Island, but on that day it became synonymous with exploding NASA rockets…

2. Falcon 1 Flight 3 Transient Thrust

The sequence of events: Main engine shut-off, stage separation and... <em>oh sh*t!</em> (SpaceX)

The sequence of events: Main engine shut-off, stage separation and... oh sh*t! (SpaceX)

SpaceX is fast becoming Elon Musk’s answer to the future of space commercialization. His company has gone from strength to strength in the last decade, building everything from their rockets to their launch platforms (first in the Pacific Ocean and now expanding to Cape Canaveral itself) from scratch. Of course it helps if you have a vast wealth of personal fortune, but SpaceX’s vision and drive is truly inspiring. However, you don’t become the #1 in the commercial space launch business without a few knocks along the way.

Anticipation was high for a successful Flight 3 of the SpaceX Falcon 1 from Kwajalein Atoll on August 2nd. For the most part (apart from the getting into orbit part) the Falcon performed flawlessly, travelling over 200km in altitude. But then came main engine shut-off and stage separation. As the first stage separated and began to drop toward Earth, the video showed a strange recoil (caused by an unexpected “transient thrust”), and the stage seemed to hang around near the second stage engine just before second stage ignition. Oh dear. Disaster struck for the third time running, Falcon 1 exploded high in the atmosphere.

On that day several commercial payloads were lost, but SpaceX regrouped and prepared for another test flight on September 28th. This time SpaceX made history and got into orbit. It was all worth it in the end…

1. The Soyuz (Very) Hard Landing

A charred Soyuz (BBC)

A charred Soyuz (BBC)

The number one space exploration mishap has got to go to the Russian Soyuz hard landing on April 19th. This isn’t because the Soyuz crew return vehicle suffered an unexpected “ballistic re-entry”; it’s not due to the fact the capsule entered the atmosphere on its side; it’s not even because the capsule caused vegetation around the 400 mile-off target landing site to burn, allowing smoke into the cabin where the crew hung upside down after a particularly violent re-entry. It was the incredible reaction of the Russian officials after the hard landing that stands out as the biggest mishap of the year.

Initially, Russian space officials attempted to cover up the emergency landing of the descent capsule. Bad idea. However, compounding the issue, they wrongly blamed the Soyuz crew for changing the flight plan without permission after they had undocked from the ISS. Even worse idea. To top off the whole fiasco, one official cited a bad omen (i.e. a woman was commanding the mission) as a contributing factor behind the hard landing. Did he really just say that?!

As you’d expect, this started several weeks of media excitement over the event and the Russian space agency was put in a very bad light. But did it change anything? I doubt it

In Conclusion

So that was the Astroengine.com “Top 5 Space Exploration Mishaps of 2008.” There have of course been other setbacks during the year of spaceflight, but these five stand out as being the most… significant (embarrassing). But after these events, we learn new ways to prevent them from happening again (take the SpaceX transient thrust issue for example). However, as with the Chinese launch gaffe and the Russian assertion that an old naval superstition may have been the root cause of the Soyuz hard landing, some regimes will always cloud their endeavours in space with secrecy. Space exploration is a powerful political tool, and it seems some nations of the world are willing to exploit this fact. Remind me, why are we depending on Russia for manned access to space again?

*Leading photo by Jurvetson (flickr)

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