ADVERTISEMENT

The 10 Most Dangerous Moments in Space Shuttle and Station History

Astronauts are even braver than you think. Here's a list of NASA's closest calls during the history of the agency's shuttle program

1 of 10

10. ORBITAL BULLETS--JUNE 28, 2011

Space above Earth is a lethal junkyard littered with countless scraps speeding by at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour. The trash runs the gamut from pieces of explosive bolts to farings from rocket nose-cones and, lately, bits of a satellite deliberately blown up by China.....[ More ]

9. SNAGGED SOLAR ARRAY--NOVEMBER 3, 2007

The space station’s four pairs of solar arrays, each close to a football field long end to end, provide all of the orbital laboratory’s electricity. During the STS-120 space shuttle mission, astronauts moved one of the station’s solar-array pairs to a new location, then unfurled them.....[ More ]

8. EXPLOSIVE LANDING--DECEMBER 8, 1983

Hydrazine is a nasty fuel that smells like ammonia and can ignite spontaneously when exposed to air. When the ninth space shuttle mission landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, hydrazine leaked from an auxiliary power unit on the shuttle and caught fire—but no one at NASA knew until the next day.....[ More ]

7. SOLAR FLARE--JANUARY 20, 2005

Space weather is a looming threat for any space flier. Even those cradled in a spacecraft within the Earth’s protective magnetic shield can feel the wrath of solar radiation storms.

On January 20, 2005, a giant sunspot exploded and flung an X-class solar flare toward the Earth.....[ More ]

6. SEVERE TILE DAMAGE--DECEMBER 1988

The space shuttle's thermal protection system is an armor of heat-resistant tiles that diverts super-heated plasma during reentry. And as NASA was forced to address with the loss of Columbia and its crew in 2003, damage to those tiles is a life-threatening situation.....[ More ]

5. FLAT TIRE, FAILED BRAKES--APRIL 19, 1985

The last thing you want when landing 100 tons of the most complex machine ever built by humans is a flat tire. Or a brake failure. Both happened to the seven-person crew of the STS-51-D space shuttle mission when they landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California—with U.S.....[ More ]

4 LAUNCH PAD FIRE--JUNE 26, 1984

Technical glitches plagued the first launch of space shuttle Discovery . After the crew of six (shown here participating in fire training exercises) climbed into the spacecraft for the third time at Launch Pad 39A, a fuel valve in one of the Discovery ’s three main engines failed to open four seconds before launch.....[ More ]

3. SOYUZ LOSES CONTROL--OCTOBER 16, 2004

When necessary in the past decade or so, NASA has ferried its astronauts to the space station aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft (an option it will be stuck with after Atlantis ’s final launch and until the advent of mature commercial vehicles).....[ More ]

2. BAD DIRECTIONS--JANUARY 1990

Several times during a space shuttle mission, controllers in Houston beam up instructions called a "state vector." The coordinates tell the spaceship exactly where it is above the Earth so it can make extremely precise docking, undocking and reentry maneuvers.....[ More ]

1. O-RING EROSION--NOVEMBER 26, 1985

The launch of space shuttle Atlantis on November 26, 1985, would emerge as a haunting close call in the shadow of the Challenger disaster three months later. Rubber O-rings serve as a seal between segments of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and prevent hot gases from escaping as the rocket fuel burns.....[ More ]

risk free title graphic

YES! Send me a free issue of Scientific American with no obligation to continue the subscription. If I like it, I will be billed for the one-year subscription.

cover image Subscribe Now
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Share this Article:
Scientific American Special Universe

Get the latest Special Collector's edition

Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, Future

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X