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5 Famous Space Missions That Almost Ended In Disaster

We recently told the story of how the Apollo moon landing was saved with a felt-tip pen. That kind of "We have to improvise something before the ship explodes!" story is one thing that real space travel has in common with Star Trek. Only in real life, you can't just make up some tech jargon and reconfigure the deflector shields. It involves a lot more effort to think through panic, fire and toxic fumes.

For instance ...

#5. Neil Armstrong Was Almost Killed Years Before He Went to the Moon

The early '60s were a bad time to be an American rocket scientist. The Soviets were boasting a track record that kicked U.S. ass on all fronts, from Laika the Space Dog to Yuri Gagarin. Now both space powers had set their sights on the ultimate goal -- the moon. And the message from upstairs was clear: NASA damn well better not screw up this one.

Getty
"OK, so what if we launched a giant cube into space?"

The biggest problem with the moon leg of the Space Race wasn't getting there -- that was, more or less, just a matter of thrust. The problem lay in how to get there and back again in one piece. NASA had managed to figure out the best way to accomplish this: the lander system, which involves a light, spiderlike mini ship that leaves the spacecraft to handle the delicate landing business while the craft itself hangs around in orbit. Then the lander docks back in, and voila! Everything is parades, promotions and propaganda victory.

That was the theory, anyway. It turned out that managing to connect two vessels traveling at thousands of miles an hour, in outer space, is far from easy. But the clock was ticking, so they got practicing.

In 1966, NASA sent astronauts David Scott and Neil Armstrong (yes, that Neil Armstrong) on a mission called Gemini 8. Their objective: complete the first ever space docking by joining with a previously launched unmanned craft called the Agena.

Delta 7 Studios
This is either a rendering of the docking sequence or space pornography.

The mission went swimmingly. Six hours after launch, Scott and Armstrong had successfully docked with Agena, and everything was going good.

That is, until the death roll started.

The Near Disaster:

After 27 minutes of post-docking relaxation, Scott happened to glance out of the window and noticed that everything was spinning. A software glitch had caused Agena's thruster rockets to malfunction, and they were firing away like a drunk cowboy. Unimpressed by this potentially life-threatening problem, Armstrong calmly balanced Gemini's own thrusters to stop the roll until he could turn off Agena's.

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Armstrong, seen here smiling at his old friend Certain Fiery Death.

This fixed the problem ... for a few seconds. The roll quickly started again, more furiously than ever. Realizing that their spacecraft was in danger of breaking apart, Armstrong quickly undocked and moved away from the troublemaking Agena. Yet somehow, the spinning only increased.

Shit like this happens in space travel every once in a while, and it's usually fixed with a quick "Houston, we have a problem." However, Gemini 8 was temporarily out of radio contact at the time, which prevented the control center from telling them the plot twist: It was the Gemini's thruster that was malfunctioning all along.


"Our best estimate is that you are between 95 percent and completely fucked."

The barrel roll got faster and faster, to the point where they were going at one revolution per second. It was more than fast enough to cause Scott and Armstrong to get dizzy and lose track of the location of Earth. This is widely thought to be the worst thing you can lose track of as an astronaut.

At that point, Neil Armstrong decided he'd had enough of space's shit. His vision blurred and, at the brink of going unconscious, Armstrong somehow managed to shrug off the effects of the insanity carousel enough to figure out the real problem and fix it like a boss. He turned off the malfunctioning thrusters and initiated early reentry, which brought the aircraft back under control and allowed the astronauts to regain their bearings. One relatively uneventful emergency landing later, the battered and bruised spacemen were safe and sound -- and Command Pilot Neil A. Armstrong had added a good 10 inches to his Space Dong.

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This didn't hurt him later in life.

#4. Gordon Cooper and the MacGyver Landing

The Mercury Program was the first manned U.S. space program. And when we say "manned," we of course mean "There was a guy sitting in there while the fully automated spacecraft took care of everything." As NASA was still finding their groove with manned spaceflights, they wanted to make sure that as little as possible could go wrong by human error. So they made everything so automated that the astronauts had little to do with anything other than, well, staying put and shutting up. Hence the less-than-flattering nickname of the astronauts involved: "Spam in a can."

Of course, that shit was over the second Gordon Cooper came along.


"If that rocket weren't here, this picture would be NSFW."

Astronaut Cooper was the Spam du jour on Mercury-Atlas 9. It was the program's final mission, and everyone was feeling pretty relaxed, seeing as all the other ones had gone off without a hitch.

NASA launched Cooper into orbit on May 15, 1963, and everything was indeed going nicely ... for the first 19 orbits, anyway. When the 20th came along, Cooper suddenly lost all altitude, orientation and attitude readings. This was bad, but still somewhat manageable. An automated vessel can still operate even if its pilot doesn't quite know what's going on, right?

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These guys were all picked because they looked great in aluminum.

Too bad that was only the first part of the problem. During the very next orbit, Cooper lost his entire automatic stabilization and control systems, without which a safe, non-flambeed return to Earth's atmosphere would be, in scientific terms, balls-out impossible.

So Cooper, whose mission briefing had presumably been a mom-at-the-mall-style "Just sit there and don't touch anything," realized he was going to have to calculate the reentry and land the craft without any help from NASA's sophisticated tech. To further make the situation seem like some warped game show, he also noticed that the air inside his capsule was getting full of carbon dioxide.


"Hmm. TIE fighters on my tail, too. What a bore."

Instead of throwing his hands up and demanding to see where the candid camera is because no way can the cards be this stacked, Cooper put on his MacGyverin' hat. Improvising, he made like a 17th century sailor and approximated his position from the star formations. Then, using nothing but his wristwatch, he calculated the time he needed to fire the retro-rockets for reentry. Yes, the fate of an entire spacecraft relied on a wristwatch. And he had to hope that his watch was one of those types that still keeps perfect time in space.

Regency Stamps
The actual watch.

Upon entering Earth's atmosphere, Cooper found out that his desperation move was just as impossible as it seemed, and promptly burned to a crisp.

Ha, no! He wound up making the most accurate splashdown in the history of the program. He landed only 4.4 miles away from the ship that was picking him up -- microsurgical precision in the "landing screaming from outer space" business.


"We assumed he was dead, like, four seconds after launch."

His accomplishment single-handedly revolutionized the way astronauts were viewed in spacecraft design. And no one ever dared call an astronaut "Spam in a can" again in fear that Cooper would steer a meteorite at them using nothing but a paper clip and a broken yo-yo.

#3. USA and Soviet Union Celebrate with Joint Mission, Horrible Poisonings Ensue

By 1975, the Space Race was over -- all it needed was a bit of ceremony to close things down. To that end, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to a joint mission: Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.


Of all NASA's mission patches, this one makes the best tramp stamp.

It was as cheesy an affair as such public displays of non-hostility can get: An American crew took their unnumbered Apollo shuttle up to meet two cosmonauts in their Soyuz 19. Once their spacecrafts were connected, crew captains Thomas Stafford and Alexey Leonov had a handshake and a news conference was held, while the crews performed no doubt vital and totally non-propagandy scientific experiments on the side.

NASA
The slap-fights didn't start until the cameras turned off.

Then the crews undocked their ships and went about their merry ways. Soyuz landed safely less than a day later, while the Apollo stayed up a little longer, presumably to do some actual scientific experiments before returning to Earth.

Or that was the plan, anyway. Their reentry saw the crew doing the descent procedures in a slightly wrong order, which caused the spacecraft to start swaying. In an attempt to stop this, the computers on board automatically adjusted with thrusters. However, there happened to be an open valve to the cabin port roughly 2 feet from one of the thrusters. This caused some thruster fuel to start leaking in. You don't need to know anything about space flight to deduce that having freaking rocket fuel spraying into your lap is a bad thing.


On the plus side, the handshake went down with only a few sprained fingers.

And while having a fuel leak in the cabin is a bitch at the best of times, it's that much worse during a fiery reentry. When said fuel happens to be nitrogen tetroxide, a horrible poison that is considered deadly above 50 parts per million, it doesn't exactly diminish the problem. Especially since at times the astronauts were exposed to 15 times that amount.

GalaxyWire
Resulting in a severe case of giant head disorder for the entire crew.

Unsurprisingly, the many-times-over deadly dose the astronauts received while plummeting toward the planet in flames made the reentry process less than comfortable. Aside from the usual suspects, such as G-force and the "OhshitohshitohshitI'mgoingtodie" reflex, the poison gave them slight problems such as irritated eyeballs, nausea, burning lungs and a freaking cardiac arrest.

It tells a lot about the conditioning of an astronaut that all three guys made it. The guy whose heart was going? No problem, the other two resuscitated him with some oxygen masks. Burning lungs and chemically charred eyeballs? Enough poison to kill a regiment? No biggie! We'll deal with that after we take care of this spacecraft landing thing.


"We'd actually like to stay up here a little longer, NASA, see what this murder-gas can really do."

After splashdown, the three men spent a couple of weeks lounging around in a Honolulu hospital, and all three made a full recovery. Contemplate on that the next time you wail about that toe you stubbed on your way to the fridge.

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