10 Tragic or Notable Spacecraft Returns to Earth

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Space exploration is a hazardous business. Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, many missions have failed to escape orbit or have crashed back to Earth upon their return, often to great media publicity. In the latest example, the Russian probe Phobos-Grunt, which was launched Nov. 9, 2011 to explore Mars’ moon, Phobos, never escaped Earth’s orbit and is set to reenter the atmosphere Jan. 15 or 16, complete with a payload of toxic hydrazine rocket fuel. Several of the incidents on this list are virtually unknown. Others have become national tragedies where astronauts and cosmonauts paid the ultimate sacrifice for space exploration.

10. Genesis

The Genesis probe had a disastrous re-entry to Earth in 2004.

The Genesis probe slammed into the Utah desert on live TV in 2004.

In 2001, NASA launched its Genesis spacecraft on a mission to collect particles from the solar wind and return them to Earth. After three years collecting samples, the probe returned to Earth. Realizing that the samples were so fragile they might not survive the jolt of a parachute landing, NASA worked out a plan to use a helicopter to gently hook the returning probe as it parachuted to Earth. What engineers hadn’t counted on was the parachute’s failure to deploy, causing the return capsule to crash spectacularly in the Utah desert on Sept. 8, 2004, an event covered on live TV. Although many of the sample collectors were shattered upon the 200 mph impact, the soft mud of the Dugway Proving Ground somewhat cushioned the landing, allowing researchers to salvage some useful data.



The UARS satellite crashed into the Pacific in 2011.

Artist’s concept of Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, which crashed into the Pacific in 2011; NASA image.

The orbital decay of NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) in 2011 represented one of the largest reentries in recent years. Weighing 6.5 tons, the UARS satellite was launched in 1991, and its uncontrolled reentry was subject to much controversy as to where it would ultimately fall, as tracking agencies issued a vague probability for it to reenter anywhere between “56° latitude north or south,” a good portion of the inhabited planet. Unlike the United States spy satellite USA 193 that was purposely brought down by a missile fired from the USS Lake Erie in 2008, UARS plunged harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean on its own on Sept. 24, 2011.


8. The Kecksburg UFO Incident

The Kecksburg incident may have been a Russian probe returning to Earth.

Model of object Kecksburg, Pa., residents saw crash in 1965, now on display in town; Ryright

On the evening of Dec. 9, 1965, residents across Canada, Michigan and the Lake Erie region witnessed a fireball that ended in the town of Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, and sparked a controversy in one of the more bizarre chapters of space flight. According to published accounts, several locals found the site of the fall in the nearby woods before government officials descended and carted off the debris. Some controversy has ensued through the years as to whether this was actually the failed Cosmos 96 Venus probe launched by the Soviet Union weeks earlier. Descriptions of the craft as “acorn-shaped” and having “backwards lettering” emblazoned along its circumference jibe well with the design of an early Russian spacecraft heat shield. Yet the Cosmos 96 had been tracked and U.S. officials said it reentered the atmosphere over Canada 12 hours earlier, so the Kecksburg fall may have been associated hardware, or perhaps an unrelated meteorite. Or, as some conspiracy theorists claim, the government covered up the crash landing of a UFO. In 2005, a New York journalist filed a lawsuit against NASA to release data on the Kecksburg incident.


7. Mars 96

The Mars 96 is one of several ill-fated Mars probes.

Model of the Mars 96 probe: NASA image

In November 1996, Russia launched a mission to the Red Planet whose fate eerily mirrored that of the aforementioned Phobos-Grunt probe. Mars 96 failed to leave Earth orbit and the next day burned up upon reentry over the Chilean-Bolivian border. The Russians haven’t had much luck sending things to Mars, as the ill-fated Phobos-Grunt has been the latest to fall prey to what has jokingly become known as a “Great Galactic Ghoul” that eats Mars space probes.


6. Skylab

Skylab had a shorter than expected lifespan before plunging back to Earth.

Skylab in orbit; NASA image

In 1973, the United States utilized leftover hardware and spacecraft from the Apollo program to construct the Skylab orbiting space station. Although plans where afoot to use the space shuttle to refurbish Skylab in the 1980s, delays in the program, coupled with a stronger than expected solar cycle — which heated the Earth’s atmosphere and slowed the spacecraft — caused the station to return to Earth on July 11, 1979. The imminent reentry of the 85-ton station became a media sensation, and the San Francisco Examiner offered a reward of $10,000 for recovered Skylab debris. An Australian teen found some debris near his home and cashed in on the reward. On a humorous note, the town of Esperance, Australia, fined NASA $400 for littering.


5. Cosmos 954

The crash of a secret Soviet spy satellite in 1978 led a massive radiation cleanup effort in Northwest Canada.

U.S./Canadian crew searching for radioactive debris from Cosmos 954, 1978; Royal Canadian Air Force image

Another Russian nuclear-powered satellite that returned to Earth with much greater fanfare fell over northwestern Canada on Jan. 24, 1978. Cosmos 954 posed a political dilemma to the Soviets, who had to admit to U.S. officials it was a nuclear-powered, classified satellite designed to track the movement of U.S. submarines. Canadian and American workers spent much of 1978 collecting radioactive debris scattered across the Canadian tundra.


4. Mir

The Mir space station created a spectacular sky show when it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere in 2001.

Russia’s Mir space station in 1998; NASA image

The largest piece of space hardware to return the Earth since Skylab, the 143-ton Russian space station Mir ended its 15-year career and re-entered on March 23, 2001. Mir’s fiery demise over the South Pacific was caught dramatically on video from the island of Fiji. It’s sobering to think that the Hubble Space Telescope and even the gigantic International Space Station will eventually suffer the same fate.


3. Soyuz 1

The Fallen Astronaut memorial on the Moon honors deceased astronauts and cosmonauts.

Fallen astronaut memorial placed on the Moon during Apollo 15 mission in 1971; NASA image

On April 23, 1967, Col. Vladimir Komarov became the first cosmonaut to fly into space twice. His mission on Soyuz 1, however, was plagued with problems almost from the start; the solar panels failed to unfold, resulting in a power loss and disorientation of the spacecraft. A thunderstorm likewise grounded an attempted rescue mission. After the mission was aborted, a parachute failed to open and the spacecraft slammed back to Earth. Rumors have circulated through the years that United States listening posts picked up transmissions from Komarov cursing ground control on what would be his final orbit. Soyuz 1 marked the first confirmed fatality during a spaceflight. In their 1971 lunar mission, Apollo 15 astronauts left a memorial to Komarov and other deceased astronauts and cosmonauts. Known as the Fallen Astronaut, the memorial honors the sacrifice of the Soyuz 11 and Soyuz 1 crews, as well as the Apollo 1 astronauts who died in a fire during training in 1967, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space who died in a plane crash in 1968.


2. Soyuz 11

The crew of Soyuz 11 perished upon re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere in 1971.

The crew of Soyuz 11.

The first mission to the Soviet space station Salyut 1, Soyuz 11 departed the station on June 30, 1971. Upon landing in Siberia, however, a surprised recovery crew opened the capsule to find all three cosmonauts aboard dead. The deaths were attributed to asphyxiation, which happened after a malfunction depressurized the capsule upon reentry. The incident prompted a redesign of the Soyuz module and even prompted NASA to change re-entry procedures for Apollo astronauts.


1. The Columbia Tragedy

The 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy hastened the end of the shuttle program.

The crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia perished when their spacecraft disintegrated in the Earth’s atmosphere.

On the morning of Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003 the world awoke to the stunning news that the Space Shuttle Columbia had broken apart upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. Concerns had been raised since the launch of STS-107 15 days earlier, as video captured debris striking the leading edge of the shuttle during liftoff. An investigation later confirmed that the strike had damaged the shuttle’s thermal protection system, destroying Columbia and her crew of seven upon reentry. The disaster prompted a reevaluation of the shuttle program and recommendations to end the program on a set date. The last space shuttle landed at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. Here is a tribute to the crew of the Columbia on the NASA website.


One More: Nuclear Satellite Crashes After Launch

On April 21, 1964, the launch of a nuclear-powered Transit satellite failed and it re-entered over the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Madagascar. The payload included a 2.1-pound plutonium Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), which is believed to have at least partially incinerated upon re-entry according to scans of the area by NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission. This resulted in the redesign of RTGs to survive reentry on subsequent nuclear-powered missions, such as the launch of New Horizons to Pluto in 2006 and Mars Curiosity in 2011. Another accidental reentry of nuclear material occurred during the Apollo 13 mission. As a result of not landing on the Moon, the mission brought back its Lunar Module complete with nuclear-powered surface experiments meant to remain on the surface of the Moon. The astronauts jettisoned this in the Pacific Ocean prior to reentry, and testing of the area has never revealed a radioactive release.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.