Remember back when I said that one in fifty US space vessels blew up, and how no one seemed to know what the hell the Russians were doing in so far as flight/death ratios? Well, now we do. Sort of.
The rough number for you is that 4% to 5% of all astronauts/cosmonauts etc will die in some sort of space related business. When you get down to it, that’s phenomenal, considered that the death of test pilots is probably higher. I’m counting, in case you wondered, SubOrbital vehicles as a training accident, since NASA gives you astronaut wings for flying it, even though it doesn’t meet the international definition. I’m a US citizen, but I have to agree with the international ruling here.
Astronaut death statistics for you:
|18 have died in 4 in-flight accidents|
Parachute not opening in re-entry
Axphyxiation due to leak
|Russian||Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov|
Faulty O-Ring caused booster rocket to slip and hit the fuel tank
|US||Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee|
Thermal shield damage causing wing integrity to be compromised
|US||Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon (Israeli)|
Something to note here, the number of shuttles into space that later (or sooner) cause death is exactly the same for the US and the Russians. Two shuttles each. Now, the Soyez ‘capsules’ are tiny and hold two people, so the number is always going to be lower there. Also, there have only been 100 manned Soyez capsules to the 113 flights for the US shuttle program. Technically? We’re doing ‘better’ but we just have more people per problem, screwing up ratios.
This rather begs the question ‘why are we using Soyez if it’s just as safe, if not infinitesimally less so, than our own shuttle program?’
Answer 1: Money
That’s really sad, but that’s the truth. The shuttle NASA uses is fucking expensive. The STS program was supposed to cut costs by having a reusable shuttle. This hasn’t panned out so well, due to a number of problems, one of which was trickle down economics and the 70s. Anyone who was alive then is probably nodding their head going ‘Yeah.’ Inflation in the 70s drove up costs by a total of 200% by 1980! Of course, there are a lot of design changes from the original plans, suggested by various people like the Air Force, that cost money and time, and in the end weren’t used. Damn it. That said, there really is no good explanation for why the hell the STS program costs so bloody much! The average launch is $1.3 billion. Want to fuck your head up more? Compare that to the initial projected cost per launch: $10 to $20 million.
Answer 2: Politics
Since Walter Mondale tried to kill the space program after Apollo 1 (and probably before, but I’m going to pick on Mondale), NASA has been seen as a blight on the budget. Putting men and women into space is costly, which means taxes, and dangerous, which means deaths. Therefore from a politicians view, it’s a bad idea. If you’re a scientist (or a geek in my case) you grouse and bitch. But the thing is, failures look bad, and if you look bad as a politician, you don’t get re-elected. If you don’t get re-elected, you can’t ‘change the world and make it better.’ This means a politician, a good one who means well, is often in direct opposition between what he wants to do and what he has to do. You want to make the world better, feed the hungry, stop wars, cure diseases and expand scientific frontiers to do all that? Well, you need the space program. Problem is, people don’t always like it, and you have to sell a bit of your soul, or of NASA, to do what you can. It’s compromises.
Additionally, NASA has to put a good face up. It’s a government agency and without funding, it is nothing.
Deaths in flight aren’t the only way we should measure the dangers of space exploration. There are also deaths by training.
11 have died in 8 training accidents
Bondarenko dropped an alcohol soaked cloth onto hotplate in 100% oxygen environment,
survived the fire but died of burns a short time later
Goose sucked into engine, Freeman ejected but was at too low of an altitude for the parachute
See flubbed his landing in bad weather and crashed into the building housing Gemini 9 (his and Bassett’s spacecraft)
|US||Elliott See, Charles Bassett|
Electrical spark in 100% oxygen environment caused Velcro to spontaneously combust
|US||Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward White, Roger Chaffee|
Mechanical failure caused his plane’s controls to lock up
|1||15-Nov-1967||X-15 SubOrbital Shuttle
Combination of electrical and control problems put the plain into an uncontrolled spin at Mach 5,
best guess is Adams became disoriented and was unable to pull out
|US||Michael J. Adams|
Flying as the backseat instructor pilot teaching steep descent gliding, Adams’ plane crashed
Pilot/student ejected and lived with major injuries
|US||Michael J. Adams|
The MiG crashed under hazy circumstances. Gagarin was not drunk or on drugs, but it looks like there were multiple problems with flying conditions, a passing plane and oxygen deprivation
|Russian||Yuri Gagarin, unnamed trainer (not an astronaut)|
It’s here that NASA suddenly looks much worse than the Russian program. Two Russian Cosmonauts died in training. That we know of. Not to get all conspiracy theory on you, but frankly, if I didn’t have to publicize a death in training, I wouldn’t either. I’m also counting deaths in the T-38s, which weren’t really training, but they weren’t anything else. Elliot See and Charlie Bassett, for example, were flying to check out their new spacecraft and ultimately ended up crashing right into the hanger where it was being built. There’s a lot of levels of irony working there, and while the event is pretty much glossed over in From the Earth to the Moon (a miniseries that was on HBO in 1997), it’s actually mentioned in two ‘chapters’ which underlines its importance for me. They were working for NASA, doing NASA things, and they died. It counts.
But NASA was pretty open about this, more than I would have thought. They’d been pretty much ass-kicked into the spotlight by Kennedy, though, so I don’t think it was a choice on their part. Think about it. On May 5, 1961, we get a guy up there and it’s great. Alan B. Shepard, first man in space. But all we really did was sling him up out of the Earth’s atmosphere, 116 miles above ground. And then he fell back down. I believe it was a total of 6 seconds in space.
20 days later, Kennedy says it’s time to go land on the Moon by the end of the decade.
That’s 8.5 years away, and all we’ve done is get a damn guy up there. Oh, and the original plan for the Apollo program was to get to the Moon, not land on it.
It starts to look like a bloody miracle so few people died, doesn’t it?
As much as I love the Moon, people being on it, and all that, I know that the Moon was a totally political game. Kennedy needed something to give all a big old feel good, and that was the Moon. Lyndon Johnson, his VP and successor, was as keen on the Moon as Kennedy, and I suspect Nixon was as well. Still, the Apollo program was good for the economy (pumped money into the private sectors), re-election (pumped money into key states), the cold war (missiles and rockets are really the same thing, one just has people instead of a freaking bomb), and science (do I need to explain this one?).
Looking at Apollo, one starts to wonder why Russia didn’t get there first. After all, they’d gotten the checklist down so far. First satellite? Sputnik, by the Russians. First man in space? Yuri Gagarin, Russian. First woman in space? Valentina Vladimirovna, Russian. First man to ‘walk’ in space? Alexi Leonov, Russian. First to send a satellite to the Moon? Russia. First to send a manned spacecraft to circle the Moon? The US. First to land on the Moon? The US.
So we caught up, and many people cried out “At what cost, science!?” Well, probably not in those words, btu you get the idea. Other people asked “Where the hell are the Russians!?”
I’ll answer backwards. The Russians wanted to send Leonov to the Moon, but (a) got a late start by not committing to the Moon until 1964, (b) had successive launch failures with their rockets and (c) didn’t have good funding. As late as 1963, the Russians were still saying they didn’t want to go to the Moon. Khrushchev said he didn’t want to be ‘defeated,’ but he also didn’t want the power of being the nation to get to the Moon. I suspect he meant the responsibility, but there’s a lot lacking in Russian/English translations from that time, if my high school Asst. Headmaster is to be believed. And I do believe him.
Part of the responsibility comes from sticking your flag in the Moon and owning it (see Eddie Izzard for details). I’m glad to say the US explicitly disclaimed the right to ownership of any part of the Moon.
As for the cost (see? I didn’t forget ya!), great strides in science can not be measured in money spent or lives lost. Budgets are designed around people doing similar tasks, so they know how much the new task will cost. Innovation, like the Moon but also like mapping the DNA helix or making a hybrid car, has no precedent by which it can be monetarily matched. As for lives lost, this is a balancing act. We lose lives now in order to save more later. I can’t say if this is right or wrong, in the long run, but the cost of the lives of volunteers who know the risk is no more or less than the cost of a policeman who dies at a routine traffic stop, because some coke head caps him. It’s a grey area, always will be. You have to make your own call there.
Before we go, let us not forget the near misses.
Many have been involved in 21 ‘near miss’ accidents
|12-Apr-1961||Vostok 1||The service module did not detach from the reentry module for 10 minutes, making for a wild ride.||Russian||Yuri Gagarin|
|21-Jul-1961||Mercury 4||After splashdown, the hatch blew open, nearly drowning Grissom and sinking the capsule. Controversy remains, as Grissom claimed the hatch blew on it’s own, and the engineers didn’t think that could happen.||US||Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom|
|19-Mar-1965||Voskhod 2||The first spacewalker, Leonov’s suit got stiff making it initially impossible to re-enter the shuttle, and later could not seal the hatch easily. In landing the descent module did not separate cleanly, making for a rough re-entry that landed the crew in the woods, where they spent a night surrounded by wolves.||Russian||Boris Volynov, Aleksei Leonov|
|29-Aug-1965||Gemini 5||Gemini landed 130 km short, because someone incorrectly entered the Earth’s rotation rate into the computer.||US||Pete Conrad, Gordon Cooper|
|17-Mar-1966||Gemini 8||In space, testing Earth-Orbit-Rendezvous, a maneuvering thruster wouldn’t shut down, throwing the capsule into an uncontrolled spin. Armstrong jettisoned the thruster.||US||Neil Armstrong, David Scott|
|06-May-1968||LLRV 1||Lunar Landing Research Vehicle crashed, forcing Armstrong to eject.||US||Neil Armstrong|
|08-Dec-1968||LLTV 1||Lunar Landing Training Vehicle crashed, forcing Algranti to eject.||US||Joseph Algranti (test pilot)|
|15-Jan-1969||Soyuz 5||The service module failed to separate after retrofire which caused a host of problems, including a backwards reentry, poisonous gasses filling the capsule, and goofing the parachutes to make for a very hard landing.||Russian||Aleksei Leonov, Pavel Belyayev|
|14-Nov-1969||Apollo 12||The rocket was struck by lighting on lift-off.||US||Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon, Al Bean|
|11-Apr-1970||Apollo 13||Little known fact: At launch, the engine was bouncing a lot and shut off only because of a coincidence. The shut off switch had detected low pressure.||US||James Lovell, John Swigert, Fred Haise|
|14-Apr-1970||Apollo 13||An explosion crippled the spacecraft, and lots of stuff happened.||US||James Lovell, John Swigert, Fred Haise|
|23-Jan-1971||Helicopter||While training in a helicopter for Backup Commander of Apollo 14, Cernan crashed and nearly drowned for lack of a life vest.||US||Gene Cernan|
|29-Jan-1971||LLTV ?||Lunar Landing Training Vehicle crashed, forcing Present to eject.||US||Stuart Present (test pilot)|
|23-Apr-1971||Soyuz 10||On reentry, the capsule filled with toxic fumes, causing Rukavishnikov to pass out.||Russian||Vladimir Shatalov, Aleksei Yeliseyev, Nikolai Rukavishnikov|
|05-Apr-1975||Soyuz 18a||Second stage separation failed during launch, and there was an altitude error. The launch was aborted, but landed about 5g heavier than normal and rolled down a hill in China(!). The mission commander was never able to fly again.||Russian||Vasili Lazarev, Oleg Makarov|
|24-Jul-1975||Apollo-Soyuz Test Project||Toxic gas vented from the spacecraft and re-entered the cabin air intake due to a switch being in the wrong position.||US/Russian||Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, Deke Slayton|
|24-Aug-1976||Soyuz 21||Crew left space station Salyut 5 early, due to a fire, an environmental control system failure, and to health problems caused by fumes from chemicals used to develop film from the station’s surveillance cameras. There was also a report of severe home and space sickness.||Russian||Boris Volynov, Vitali Zholobov|
|16-Oct-1976||Soyuz 23||Capsule landed in a snowstorm on a frozen lake, broke the ice, and was dragged under by the parachute. The heat had to be turned down to save power, and the rescue teams were surprised the crew had survived.||Russian||Vyacheslav Zudov, Valeri Rozhdestvenski|
|07-Feb-1977||Soyuz 24||Numerous physical and psychological problems plagued the crew. The party line is that it was due to poor exercise, though other say it was gas fumes.||Russian||Viktor Gorbatko, Yuri Glazkov|
|19-Dec-1977||Soyuz 26||The EVA nearly had the first death in orbit, as one of the crew did not have his safety tether attached and drifted away from the shuttle and was grabbed by his crew-mate. The crew disagree that it was life threatening, though, as the electrical umbilical cord was still attached.||Russian||Georgi Grechko, Yuri Romanenko|
|26-Sep-1983||Soyuz T-10-1||Rocket caught fire on the launch pad and the crew was saved by their escape system.||Russian||Vladimir Titov, Gennady Strekalov|
|05-Sep-1988||Soyuz TM-5||The engines kept screwing up and turning off on re-entry, forcing them to stay in orbit an extra day with little food and water and no way to relieve themselves.||Russian||Alexandr Lyakhov, Abdul Ahad Mohmand (Afghanistani)|
|10-Aug-1992||Soyuz TM-14||For unknown reasons, the shuttle suffered a landing system malfunction, causing its descent module to turn over. It came to rest upside down, trapping its occupants inside until it could be righted.||Russian||Alexander Viktorenko, Alexander Kaleri, Klaus-Dietrich Flade (German)|
|14-Jan-1994||Soyuz TM-17||During separation before landing, the shuttle crashed into Mir. This was due t a switch error which left the brakes on.||Russian||Vasili Tsibliyev, Aleksandr Serebrov, Jean-Pierre Haignere ()|
|23-Feb-1997||Mir||An oxygen generating canister leaked and caused a fire for about 90 seconds.||Russian/US||unknown|
|25-Jun-1997||Mir||A cargo freighter crashed while docking, puncturing a hole and damaging solar arrays.||Russian/US||2 Russian, 1 US|
I was going to count all the people, but then names showed up twice and I decided not to. The split here is, again, exactly the same between US and Russia, and I know that we know more about us than them. That said, Brezhnev was in charge of the USSR at the time, and it was his policy to categorcially not disclose anything about failures. One glastnost later, we learned some of the truth. I suspect quite a lot more, on both sides of the curtain, was hushed up.
After all, no one wants a dead astronaut.
I was reading up on a lot of the astronauts, doing ‘research’ for this, and quite a lot died of cancer. More seem to die of old age, though, so don’t start any theories on me!