In the grand scheme of human space programs in Russia and the United States, catastrophic failures are relatively rare. But they are often quite spectacular and make a big impression on the public and on the funding for space exploration. The explosions in the videos we’ve assembled here were very costly, some in terms of life, some in terms of lost equipment and all in terms of progress of the space programs.
Vanguard TV3 Fuel Tanks Explode
Dec. 6, 1957: The United States’ first attempt to launch a satellite into orbit was also its first failure. Two seconds after leaving the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, this rocket lost thrust and sank back down, rupturing and exploding its fuel tanks. It had reached a height of about 4 feet.
Though the rocket was destroyed, the Vanguard satellite it was carrying was thrown clear, its transmitters still signaling. The satellite is now on display at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.
Space Shuttle Challenger Explodes
Jan. 28, 1986: Many were watching live when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven astronauts on board. At fault was the O-ring seal on the right solid rocket booster, which ruptured upon liftoff and allowed a jet of pressurized gas to rush from the motor.
The resulting destruction caused the shuttle’s liquid-hydrogen fuel to explode and aerodynamic forces to tear the orbiter apart. The shuttle program was suspended for 32 months while the accident was investigated.
GOES-G destroyed by Delta 178 Rocket Explosion
May 3, 1986: The GOES-G satellite is destroyed when its Delta Launch Vehicle 178 rockets is intentionally destroyed by The Cape Canaveral Range Safety Officer. A post-launch failure hearing indicated an electrical failure in the guidance system was at fault. Seventy-one seconds into the mission the first stage engine shut down necessitating destruction 20 seconds later.
Titan IV Rocket Explodes With $1 Billion Payload
Aug. 12, 1998: A billion-dollar spy satellite was destroyed when a Titan IV rocket exploded 40 seconds after liftoff. U.S. Investigators say a faulty wire harness short-circuited, causing the guidance system to lose power. The explosion is one of the most expensive space disasters of all time.
Rocket Explodes Over Plesetsk Cosmodrome
Oct. 15, 2002: An unmanned Russian Soyuz-U rocket carrying a scientific spacecraft, Fotom-M, explodes 29 seconds after launch. Russian News Agencies report that one soldier was killed from flying debris.
Space Shuttle Columbia Disintegrates on Re-entry
Feb. 1, 2003: Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere, killing the seven astronauts on board and dealing a near-fatal blow to the already troubled space shuttle program. It would be more than two years before another shuttle is launched.