I was sort of excited for Beresheet—Israel’s little spacecraft—to land on the moon and start sending back data to Earth. Hence, I was disappointed a few weeks ago to learn that Beresheet crashed while trying to land. Apparently, the main engine failed, communication was briefly lost, and the little SpaceIL lunar lander couldn’t slow down fast enough to touch down nicely on the moon’s surface once the engine re-fired.
However, Beresheet’s accident does remind us that space travel is complicated and can be dangerous. Thinking back, I remember both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle tragedies. Curious, I looked up a bit more on the history of space exploration and found that it’s littered with failed attempts at blasting off to space.
One article I found listed some of NASA’s accidents:
- Apollo 1 catching fire and killing three astronauts during a launch pad test on January 27, 1967;
- A tank with liquid oxygen bursting on an Apollo 13 flight to the moon on April 13, 1970 (luckily the Apollo 13 astronauts were able to survive by getting inside the lunar module);
- The space shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 28, 1986, thus killing six astronauts and one teacher;
- The space shuttle Columbia breaking apart as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere attempting to land on February 1, 2003, and killing seven astronauts;
- And an experimental rocket launched from Wallops Island, Virginia being destroyed purposely for safety after it veered off course upon takeoff on August 22, 2008.
The United States is not the only country to have faced setbacks when it comes to flying to outer space, though. Throughout the 1960s, the Soviets and Americans competed to be the first to land on the moon—commonly known as part of the space race. On April 27, 1967, the Soviets’ Soyuz 1 spacecraft crashed when its’ parachutes failed to deploy properly as it returned to Earth, killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.
Four years later another Soviet disaster happened on June 29, 1971 as the crew of Soyuz 11 prepared to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. Soyuz 11 went to the world’s first space station—Saylut 1—for a three-week mission, but as they prepared to return to Earth, their crew capsule depressurized, killing all three cosmonauts (making them the only people to have died while still in outer space).
Western Europe also experienced trouble launching satellites into space. When the European Space Agency launched an Ariane rocket from Kourou, French Guiana carrying two Japanese satellites, it exploded shortly after takeoff. Another Western European Ariane rocket carrying the $150 million PanAmsat-3 telecom satellite crashed into the Atlantic on December 1, 1994. A couple of years later, the Ariane-5 version of Europe’s Ariane rockets exploded 40 seconds after blasting off on June 4, 1996.
Nor did China get to space failure-free. On February 15, 1996, a Chinese rocket carrying the Intelsat 708 communications satellite exploded shortly after takeoff from Xichang, hitting a nearby village and killing several people.
After perusing all these failures, I stepped back to ask myself: What do those that have gotten to space have in common? The answer that popped into my head: I would say persistence above all. In the face of some pretty huge disasters, each persevered, eventually coming back to defeat their failures and ultimately triumph.
Many recent American space missions seem to be focusing on Mars rather than the moon, so it’s sort of refreshing to see Beresheet’s intent to return to the moon. Really, when it comes to the possibilities, isn’t the sky the limit? (Or should I rather say, isn’t the universe is the limit?)
“Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.”