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Fallen astronauts: Rare photos, cockpit footage, final clips from disasters

Indians were perhaps introduced to the dangers associated with space missions when Kalpana Chawla – the first woman astronaut of Indian-origin in space— died in a space-shuttle crash in 2003.

world Updated: Apr 13, 2015 00:48 IST
Vignesh Radhakrishnan
Vignesh Radhakrishnan
Hindustan Times

Indians were perhaps introduced to the dangers associated with space missions when Kalpana Chawla – the first woman astronaut of Indian-origin in space— died in a space-shuttle crash in 2003.

Popular Hollywood films like Alfonso Cuarón's 'Gravity' and Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' also added to the effect.

Even though technological advancements have made space missions comparatively safer, yet serious accidents do occur -- as of today 18 astronauts have lost their lives in space expeditions.

First incident: April 24, 1967 - Vladimir Komarov

Vladimir Komarov, a Russian cosmonaut, died during his second flight, onboard Soyuz 1, 24 April 1967, when the spacecraft crashed during its return to Earth.

He was the first confirmed human casualty in a space mission.

Valentina Komarov, the widow of Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, can be seen kissing a photograh of her dead husband. AFP Photo

According to, Komarov's parachute allegedly malfunctioned and his final communications reportedly revealed that he 'cried in rage' at the engineers whom he blamed for the faulty spacecraft.

The book 'Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin' claims that Perry Fellwock, a US National Security analyst, had intercepted Komarov's final conversations with ground control officers.

According to the book, just before the impact, the then Soviet premier Alexey Kosygin is heard crying and telling Komarov that his country was proud of him.

The book also claims that Yuri Gagarin (the first man to fly to outer space) was Komarov's replacement in case he backed out of the mission.

Komarov accepted the mission to save his friend even though he knew that he would certainly die as the space capsule was not safe and if he backed out they would force Gagarin to go ahead with the mission. Komarov felt no one dared to tell the then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev about the faults in the shuttle.

According to the book, Komarov told Venyamin Russayev, a KGB agent, that he would not return back alive from the flight. When Russayev asked why he can't refuse the mission, Komarov replied that then Gagarin would die instead of him and he could not let that happen.

The Russian government has not accepted the book's version of events.

Second incident: June 30, 1971 - Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov

Three Soviet cosmonauts, commander Georgi Dobrovolski, test engineer Viktor Patsayev and engineer Vladislav Volkov died during the Soyuz 11 mission.

Photo: Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov. AFP Photo

On June 29, 1971, Soyuz 11 crashed when it was preparing to return due to sudden decompression in the cabin killing all the three cosmonauts. According to various reports a ventilation valve was damaged and they were exposed to space vacuum, which resulted in death due to asphyxiation with blood dripping from different orifices in the body.

Soyuz 11 landed perfectly as it was running on a computer program and when the ground team opened the capsule they found the dead cosmonauts.

The Soyuz landed in Karazhal in Kazakhstan a place devoid of human inhabitance. A memorial monument with images of the three cosmonauts still stands there.

Memorial in Kazakhstan. (Photo: Google maps)The USSR issued a commemorative stamp with the faces of the three fallen cosmonauts in 1971.

Third incident: January 28, 1986 - Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee

73 seconds – that’s all it took for space shuttle Challenger to explode after lifting off on January 28, 1986.

Seven astronauts died on that day. It was the first American space mission which resulted in an in-flight fatality.

In this photo the space shuttle Challenger mission STS 51-L crew pose for a portrait while training at Kennedy Space Center's (KSC) Launch complex 39, Pad B in Florida this 09 January 1986. Front row from left are: astronauts Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, back row from left: Ellison Onizuka, school teacher Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judith Resnik. (AFP Photo)

Photo of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger walking out of NASA headquarters at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the way to their mission on the fateful day. (AFP Photo)

Here is a video recording of the launch.

One of the astronauts Christa McAuliffe was a teacher by profession, who took part in NASA's "teacher in space" program.

Another teacher Barbara Morgan was her stand by in case McAuliffe was unable to take part in the mission on that day.

If McAuliffe had completed the mission successfully she would have become the first teacher in space but following the disaster NASA dropped the program.

Christa McAuliffe (R) and Barbara Morgan pose for a portrait in this undated file photo. (AFP Photo)

Eight years later NASA relaunched the program changing its name to "Educator Astronaut Project". Barbara, even after the Challenger disaster, remained with the NASA and continued her training.

She finally flew into outer space on STS-118, a space shuttle mission, on 21 August 2007. Read her full interview to NASA here.

In this video Barbara Morgan watches the Challenger and her fellow teacher Christa McAuliffe take off and then disintegrate just 73 seconds later.

Fourth incident: February 1, 2003 - Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon

The Columbia shuttle disaster was the last disaster in human space flight missions. Seven astronauts died in this accident. The crew included Kalpana Chawla, an Indian origin mission specialist, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut for NASA.

The shuttle disintegrated into pieces just 16 minutes from scheduled landing time. A snag – the foam insulation broke off and damaged the left wing - which developed during launch was said to be the reason for disintegration.

Photo of the crew on the day of the launch. Wearing red shirts to signify their shift’s color, are astronauts Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From the left (top row), wearing blue shirts, are astronauts David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. (AFP Photo)

A video of the crew joking and carrying out operations just minutes before the shuttle disintegrated was recovered from the debris and is available on YouTube.

The video ends just 4 minutes before the shuttle disintegrated.

The debris of the shuttle could only be completely collected two months later and a diary which Ilan Ramon maintained during the mission miraculously survived.

One of the entries in the journal was, "Today was the first day that I felt that I am truly living in space. I have become a man who lives and works in space." This bit is now displayed in the Isreal museum in Jerusalem.

Let us take a look at some of the photos taken on board Columbia shuttle after the launch on January 16, 2003 before it disintegrated on February 1, 2003 during it's re-entry procedure.

Ilan Ramon aboard Columbia space shuttle (Photo : NASA)

Taken on January 27, Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, STS-107 mission specialist, is pictured in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. This is one of the last pictures of Kalpana Chawla taken before the shuttle disintegrated on February 1,2003. (NASA)

Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, STS-107 mission specialist, is pictured on the flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Columbia just one day after the launch.(Photo: NASA)

A photo of Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, STS-107 mission specialist, inside the Space Shuttle Columbia taken on 19 January 2003, three days after launch. (Photo: NASA)

Click here for more photos

Edited by : Abhishek Saha ( | Written by : Vignesh Radhakrishnan (

First Published: Apr 12, 2015 17:16 IST

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