October 20, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Friday 28th January this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. However, the Challenger disaster was neither the first, nor the last, time lives have been lost in the quest to explore John F. Kennedy’s “new ocean”. With NASA preparing to retire its shuttle fleet soon, perhaps now is a suitable time to look back at some of the lives which have been lost during the last half century, in which the crazy dream of manned spaceflight became a glorious reality.

Space Mirror Memorial – This memorial is located in the John F. Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and is dedicated to the memory of all of the astronauts who have lost their lives.

A total of 32 people have died either in space or whilst taking part in related training exercises. Of these, the most high profile disasters are undoubtedly Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia. These three disasters alone account for 17 of the 24 astronauts NASA has lost. In the coming weeks, I will explore these three catastrophes in detail. However, today I would like to focus on the remaining 7 astronauts and 8 cosmonauts who have perished to date.


Captain Theodore C. Freeman died in October 1964, almost exactly one year after being selected for the astronaut programme. Freeman had been training to pilot an Apollo mission and had completed over three thousand hours of flight time. He died when the T-38 jet he was flying collided with a snow goose. The goose struck the left side of the cockpit canopy, shattering plexiglass, which entered both of the jet’s engines. Freeman was able to eject, but unfortunately his altitude was too low and his parachute had insufficient time to fully open.

Sadly, this was just the first of a number of fatal accidents to occur involving NASA’s T-38 supersonic jets. In 1966, trainee astronauts Charles A. Bassett II and Elliot M. See, Jr. died when the T-38 jet they were both flying in crashed on account of poor weather conditions. The pair had been due to fly on the Gemini 9 mission.

A year later, Major Clifton C. Williams, Jr. also died as a result of a crash involving a T-38. He had been a backup pilot for the Gemini 10, Apollo 3 and Apollo 9 missions. Sadly, Williams’ untimely death meant that he never had the chance to go into space.


While jet accidents were also responsible for the deaths of Majors Michael J. Adams and Robert H. Lawrence in 1967, the jets involved in their respective accidents were not the T-38 model. Adams died when the X-15 jet he was piloting entered a spin at a speed of mach 5 and disintegrated under forces approaching 15 G. Lawrence died whilst taking part in a training mission aboard an F-104 aircraft. This mission was used to collect data to aid in the development of the Space Shuttle.


Captain Manley L. Carter, Jr. died in 1991 whilst travelling, on NASA business, on an Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight, which crashed killing all on board. Carter had completed Top Gun training in his earlier career and, after joining the astronaut training programme in 1984, Carter was chosen to fly on the Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-33. He successfully completed this mission and was selected to fly on the Space Shuttle Discovery once more in 1992.

Space Shuttle Discovery


Valentin V. Bondarenko died in 1960, just over a year before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Bondarenko was training in a ground-based spacecraft simulator when fire broke out in the capsule. Bondarenko was unable to escape and died.

Colonel Vladimir Komarov had been into space in 1964 as commander of Voshkod 1, but ran into difficulties during his second space mission aboard Soyuz 1. Upon re-entering the atmosphere, the Soyuz capsule’s parachute became tangled and did not successfully deploy. The capsule hit the ground at 200mph and burst into flames, killing Komarov, the capsule’s sole occupant, instantly.

After becoming the first man in space in 1961, Colonel Yuri Gagarin became a national hero and the Soviet authorities deemed him too important to risk sending on another space flight for several years. Gagarin spent the next six years training new cosmonauts, including Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space. In 1967, Gagarin was returned to flight status, but he died while conducting a proficiency flight in a MiG-15 trainer jet before he could return to space.

1963 Soviet stamp depicting Valentina Tereshkova

Lieutenant Colonel Georgi Dobrovolsky and civilian engineers Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov perished during the Soyuz 11 mission in 1971. During this mission, these three cosmonauts became the first crew to live aboard Salyut 1 space station. After successfully spending three weeks aboard the station, the three men once again boarded the Soyuz 11 capsule in order to make their return to Earth. However, their re-entry did not go to plan. A valve intended to equalize the pressure between the cabin and the outside air opened prematurely. As the cosmonauts were not wearing spacesuits and were unable to close the valve manually, they were asphyxiated in seconds.

Leonid Ivanov and Oleg Kononenko both died in 1980 in aircraft accidents. Ivanov was conducting a test flight in a MiG-27 jet and Kononenko was flying a Yak-38. Kononenko had been selected to pilot the Buran space shuttle, but he died 8 years before the Buran space shuttle made its first, and only, flight.

Yak-38 on the deck of a Soviet aircraft carrier

The Buran space shuttle was the Russian’s direct response to the US space shuttle programme and bears obvious aesthetic and functional similarities. The Buran space shuttle programme was scrapped after only one unmanned test flight, during which the shuttle spent 3 hours in space. The Buran space shuttle was destroyed in 2002 when the hangar in which it was being housed collapsed, killing eight workers.

Buran Space Shuttle

This accident is only one of many incidents which have resulted in the death of space programme workers. The decision not to include details of these incidents is in no way meant to reflect that lives of these workers were any more or less important than the lives of the astronauts and cosmonauts which have been lost. Not only would the inclusion of these incidents have dictated an increase in the length of this blog of several orders of magnitude, but there would have also been the difficulty of defining which deaths are directly connected with the space programme. For instance, one would have to decide how far back to go with regards to the early developmental research which was built upon during the space race. Equally, the fact that both the Russian and US space agencies have used many sub-contractors to build their respective rockets and shuttles means that it is also difficult to define which deaths have been as a direct result of the space race itself.

Humankind’s achievements in space stand as a testament to the work of hundreds of thousands of people and the dreams of billions. Those few who have been into space truly have stood on the shoulders of giants, without whom there would have been no hope of reaching the heavens. The names listed on this page are but a few of those giants.

Over the next three weeks, I will be looking at the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia tragedies in detail.

Fallen Astronaut – This memorial was placed on the lunar surface by the crew of Apollo 15 on August 1, 1971. It is dedicated to all of the astronauts and cosmonauts who have died in their quest to further the cause of space exploration.

To finish, I have included this quotation from Carl Sagan’s 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot:

“Since, in the long run, every planetary civilization will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring – not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive… If our long-term survival is at stake, we have a basic responsibility to our species to venture to other worlds.”

Andrew Purcell.