When Rocket Launches Go Wrong

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Whether it's the Soyuz rocket, the Challenger Space Shuttle, or the very first missions into Space, rocket launches have always carried danger. Rocket science is famously complex, and it doesn't take much for things to go very wrong. In this video, we look at some of the most infamous and most costly mistakes and disasters in the history of space travel.

When Rocket Launches Go Wrong

On October 11, 2018, the world was reminded of just how dangerous space flight could be. The Soyuz MS-10, which was taking astronauts Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin to the International Space Station, experienced significant problems shortly after liftoff and was forced into an emergency landing. While everyone was OK, the disaster highlighted the inherent dangers of space travel, even now, half a century after landing on the moon. But, of course, the MS-10 was definitely not the first rocket to fail, and it likely won’t be the last. In this video, we’ll be looking at some of the worst rocket launch disasters throughout history and exploring what went wrong.

In truth, NASA has been learning from its mistakes from the very beginning. As in, from literally the very beginning. The Vanguard TV3, the United States’ first attempt to launch a satellite into orbit, ended in an almost comical disaster on December 6, 1957. Just two seconds after launch and having reached a whopping four feet from the ground, the rocket fell back to Earth and exploded, completely destroying it and the launch pad. It was an embarrassing failure amidst the emerging Space Race, yet it proves the scale of the challenge at that time. And, given that just over a decade later the Agency managed to place a man on the moon – it shows how quickly fortunes can turn. An investigation found that the TV3 accident was a result of low tank and fuel system pressure, leading to a severed fuel line that cut the thrust. Engineers quickly solved the problem, and that particular engine never failed again.

The very first Apollo mission also ended in disaster – though this time the consequences were far worse. Apollo 1 was planned to be the first orbital test involving the Apollo Command Module and a manned crew, but a horrific accident occurred during rehearsals for the mission. An electrical fire quickly and viciously spread throughout the vehicle due to various combustible materials onboard, and the oxygenated atmosphere inside the cabin. A plug door hatch prevented the astronauts’ escape, and Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives. The name ‘Apollo 1’ was retired in their honour.

Throughout the years, various rockets have failed thanks to structural or engineering problems. A little over a year after the Apollo 1 disaster, Apollo 6, which served to test the capability of the Saturn 5 rocket, suffered significant problems upon launch. Mere minutes into the thankfully unmanned flight, the rocket experienced ‘pogo oscillations’, a unique, bouncy vibration named after the sensation of bouncing on a pogo stick. Shortly after this, two of its five engines shut down, which led to more complications and an eventual crash landing into the Pacific after nine hours in the air.

The recent Soyuz rocket failure is also assumed to be the result of faulty engineering. According to initial reports, experts believed that the accident was the result of a failed booster separation, which knocked the rocket off course. After the onboard computer recognized the problem, it cut the second stage engines and safely ejected the two astronauts from the launch vehicle – in many ways, the astronauts’ safety is testament to the advanced measures now in place, on twenty-first century machines.

However, even the highest of high-tech rockets have come into unexpected problems at the hands of Mother Nature. Maybe she just doesn’t want us to leave! The first flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 ended especially badly on March 24, 2006. Less than sixty seconds after takeoff, the vehicle suffered significant rolling before pitching over and crashing into a nearby reef. Experts immediately recognized the problem as a fuel leak and subsequent fire, but they disagreed on what caused it. The leak was initially believed to be the result of a loose nut holding the fuel line together… But after further tests, it was found that the nut was firmly in place. The accident was later attributed to corrosion, as the nearby saltwater had worn down the nut, leading to its failure.

Often, the problems are due to an honest mistake or a freak accident. But, somewhat worryingly, some failed launches have been attributed to carelessness, or easily preventable errors.

For example, the Russian space agency was set to launch three GLONASS satellites into orbit onboard a Proton-M rocket in December 2010. However, the rocket quickly went off course and crashed, destroying itself and all three satellites. The accident was eventually attributed to the preventable mistake of overfilling the fuel tanks. The technicians responsible for filling the tanks with liquid nitrogen were reportedly unaware that the design had been upgraded, and therefore overfilled out of habit. Ultimately, the oversight made the rocket far too heavy to fly, meaning it failed to reach orbit and veered wildly off course.

Even perhaps the most infamous rocket launch disaster in history, the Challenger disaster, was largely the result of human error. The tragedy unfolded on January 28th, 1986, on what was the tenth flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The mission was aiming to observe Halley’s Comet and it offered a unique opportunity, allowing teacher Christa McAuliffe to teach her students from space. McAuliffe was chosen from 11,000 applicants for NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, an initiative started by Ronald Reagan to reinvigorate national interest in science, math, and space.

Unfortunately, the launch ended in catastrophe 73 seconds into its flight, as the shuttle completely broke apart in mid-air, leaving behind an enormous cloud, and killing all seven people on board. An awful turn of events all round, the particular circumstances behind this catastrophe seemed to make it even more tragic. Approximately 17% of all Americans, including the target audience of children, were watching the launch on live television - with McAuliffe’s presence onboard bringing new found enthusiasm for space travel. Unfortunately, everyone witnessed a harrowing event.

But, what was the cause of this unmitigated disaster? According to prior investigations, it was a combination of cold weather and a reported disobeying of orders.

The night of January 27th and morning of January 28th were notably cold for Florida, and NASA had little experience in launching a rocket in such cool temperatures. Officials observed large amounts of ice on the launch pad, but the company responsible for the boosters, Morton Thiokol, reassured NASA that the cold wouldn’t be an issue. Ultimately, it proved a major problem – caused by rubber O-rings, which had never been tested in cold temperatures. The rubber stiffened on lift-off and failed to seal the joints, triggering a leak from one of the boosters which spewed liquid oxygen, hydrogen, and flame into an external tank. Immense structural failure followed, and the spacecraft split apart.

But perhaps the most unsettling part of all is that various engineers allegedly saw this coming, yet their managers and NASA decision-makers opted not to act. According to reports, Morton Thiokol engineer Bob Ebeling and four others tried to stop the launch, citing the possible issues with the rubber O-rings. Similarly, Morton Thiokol’s Director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project, Allan McDonald, also feared the structural integrity and refused to sign the launch recommendation. However, NASA and Morton Thiokol executives seemingly sidestepped their concerns, leading Ebeling to tell his wife – on the eve of launch – that the rocket was going to explode the following morning. And when it did, he sank into a deep depression and anonymously spoke to National Public Radio about his fateful proposition three weeks later.

A subsequent investigation, the Rogers Commission, found fault in NASA’s decision making, suggesting that the Agency not only violated its own safety rules, but that it had known for years about the potential flaw. So, not only did the problem go unaddressed, but prior warnings were disregarded. Bob Ebeling later told NPR that NASA “had their mind set on going up” to show the world that “they knew what they were doing.”

Clearly, rockets fail all the time for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes it simply comes from inexperience. Other times freak accidents occur, like failed booster separations. Sometimes the elements play a role, as when Falcon 1 failed thanks to saltwater corrosion. Unfortunately, human error and carelessness can also be factors, like when a fuel tank is over fuelled or unnecessary risks are taken. A rocket launch is an incredibly complex procedure, carried out after months (and years) of preparation. It literally is rocket science. But it can take just one tiny fault for disaster to strike.