In 1988, a spacecraft code named STS-27 was launched. Virtually nothing is known about its objectives, as it was an extremely classified Department of Defense mission. What we do know, however, is the way it almost became the biggest rain of top secret shrapnel in the history of space travel -- and how NASA couldn't have cared less.
After that whole "moon" thing, they sorta got sloppy.
During launch, a piece of foam came off one of the solid rocket boosters of STS-27 and went right into the heat shield tiles that coated the bottom of the shuttle. And when we say "heat shield," we mean the tiles that keep the shuttle from turning into a hunk of molten metal upon reentry.
As similar accidents had happened before, the crew knew to suspect a problem and, once in space, took a camera-equipped robotic arm to check out the damage. What they saw was the worst tile damage any space shuttle had ever experienced: 700 tiles were damaged, to the point where one tile was actually completely gone. Here, let's just tell you what Commander Robert Gibson said upon seeing the damage: "We are going to die."
That is not the mustache of a man prone to melodrama.
He gravely informed NASA of the situation -- only to get a skeptical "No, man, that's just a trick of the light" back. The images of the damage NASA got were too grainy to see what was really going on, so they thought the tear in the side of the ship was just the play of shadows and told the crew that the landing wouldn't be a problem. Needless to say, the freshly doomed astronauts were less than happy about this.
The rest of the mission was actually pretty relaxed -- the attitude the crew decided to adopt was less moping and waiting for the fiery death that everyone assumed was coming and more sardonic "Why die all tensed up?" Black humor ran rampant; Gibson even prepared a little speech to give to NASA as the shuttle would inevitably fall apart.
Against all odds, the shuttle held together during reentry and the landing wound up going as smoothly as anything. The moment they landed, NASA took a look at the damage and shat a brick, openly admitting that this was easily the worst damage they had ever seen on a surviving shuttle.
Sadly, history doesn't tell us what Gibson replied.
In 1986, the Soviet Union began constructing their mighty space station Mir. It grew to become the largest man-made object orbiting Earth, all the way up until its deorbit in 2001. Such a huge station needed constant human attendance, and thus a chain of six-month Mir missions was set up: EO-1 was the first one, followed by EO-2, and so on.
The Jacuzzi went up on EO-5.
By 1997, amid huge budget cuts and with public interest in Mir on the wane, EO-23 started their mission on the now old and creaky station.
It did not go well.
Above: 40 percent duct tape, 60 percent prayers.
On February 12, 1997, control was handed over to EO-23. Less than two weeks later, a chemical fire broke out on board the station. Three-foot flames shot out of Mir's Kvant module, wreaking happy havoc for 14 long minutes. After getting the fire out, the crew had to wear oxygen masks for two and a half hours, because it turns out you can't just open the window when you're in space.
"Yuri! Did you fall asleep while smoking again?"
March and April saw continuous combat with mildly important machinery such as thermal controls, oxygen production and CO2 removal systems. As often as not, the crew was only one hasty repair mission away from certain death.
And those were the good times.
Strapped for cash, the Russian higher-ups wanted to see if long-range docking on the station was possible to do manually, so they could remove the expensive automatic equipment. The crew was tasked with the experiment in June, and quickly found the answer to be a decisive "Hell no." They managed to fumble two separate tests on remotely controlled crafts. The first one sailed past the station into the black abyss. The next attempt was much worse.
That craft crashed right into the station's solar array ... and then smacked right into Mir's Spektr module. Spektr began to depressurize extremely rapidly, so the cosmonauts rushed to shut down and seal off the section completely. It would never be reopened, lest they all die a horrible death in the vacuum of space ... but hey -- disaster averted!
"You have exactly four seconds to take this picture before the cabin depressurizes."
Or, as it turned out, not. The Spektr module happened to be the very unit that was keeping the station alive. Thus, when they shut it down, the entire station lost power. This caused it to turn from a functional space station into a drifting coffin for the crew inside, and it took weeks of frantic repairs to get the station back to an approximate working order.
As their six months finally came to a halt, the EO-23 crew was all too eager to change guard and returned to Earth. As a final "F you" from their doomed mission, the landing rockets of their Soyuz failed to fire on touchdown, treating them to one of the roughest landings ever experienced by a returning crew. Still, that had to have been the sweetest goddamned rough landing of their lives.
And stop by LinkSTORM to discover why E.T. may not be as cute and cuddly as we remember.
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