Best laid plans: Eight embarrassing failures of the Space Age

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Astronauts fitting corrective optics to Hubble(Credit: NASA)

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On October 19, the ESA's unmanned Schiaparelli Mars lander went silent after an attempted landing on the Red Planet that probably ended in an explosive impact on the surface. This unfortunate mishap is a reminder that space travel really is rocket science, and over the years we've seen many missions that have, spectacularly or otherwise, not gone according to plan. Here's a look at eight of the most embarrassing failures of the Space Age.

Space is difficult and dangerous. Many men and women have lost their lives both in flight and on the ground in many different countries in opening up the final frontier. There's no discounting the tales of tragedy and heroism that marked the Space Race and beyond, but there are other stories as well – ones that are funny, or at least show that even the boldest Captain Kirk type can end up doing a face palm now and again. And that fact goes back to the very beginning.

Vanguard (1957)

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union stole a march on the West with the launch of Sputnik 1 – the world's first artificial satellite. Though it was little more than a metal football with a radio beacon, its signal coming out of the vastness of space as it orbited the Earth made Western countries suddenly realize that they were within range of nuclear-tipped ICBMs from the East, and they didn't like it one bit.

The United States intelligence agencies were already aware that the Soviets were up to something in space, but they were still caught by surprise. Worse, the American answer to Sputnik was a back burner rocket project called Vanguard, which had been publicly touted to put a satellite into orbit by the end of , and prompted the Soviets to launch when they did.

The problem was that Vanguard was like a prize fighter with one hand tied behind his back, shoes nailed to the floor, and boxing gloves filled with pudding. All three branches of the US military already had advanced rocket programs and had launchers that could boost a satellite into orbit, but because 1957 was designated the International Geophysical Year (IGY) – a worldwide science project dedicated to studying the Earth in greater detail than ever before – the Eisenhower administration wasn't happy with the idea of using a weapon system for the job.

Another problem was that President was worried about the legal implications of sending satellites into orbit. Eisenhower had already advocated an "open skies" policy with the Soviets to monitor nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and the Communists had protested vehemently when the West sent reconnaissance planes and balloons over Soviet territory.

Because a military launch might be considered a provocation, Eisenhower decided that even though Vanguard was started by the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), it would be a civilian project using beefed up sounding rockets rather than military boosters. This would (hopefully) make Soviet objections much more difficult to make.

Atop the rocket would be the Vanguard satellite – a 3 lb (1.4 kg) orbiter about the size of a grapefruit. This miracle of miniaturization contained a pair or transmitters, a radio thermometer, mercury batteries, and miniature solar panels mounted on the spherical pressure hull. Once in orbit, it would send back simple telemetry about its systems and the temperature of the spacecraft.

The big day when the US would present its answer to Sputnik came on December 6,1957 as Vanguard TV-3 stood on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

As the world watched, the countdown commenced. When it reached zero, flames shot from the base of the slim metal rocket. With a throaty roar it rose off the pad, but as it reached the majestic altitude of four feet, it settled back down on its tail. The stern of the first stage crumbled under the weight of the launcher. The fuel tank buckled, then burst as the rocket slowly tipped over and vanished in a ball of fire.

Meanwhile, the little Vanguard satellite was thrown clear and rolled on the tarmac, merrily beeping away.

Gemini 9A (1966)

By 1966, the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing and NASA was carrying out a crash program to build the hardware and develop the skills needed to put a man on the Moon by 1970. A major part of this was the Gemini project, which aimed not only to put a two-man capsule into space for up to 14 days, but also to practice how to maneuver and dock two spacecraft in orbit.

The Gemini 9A mission faced an uphill battle. Its purpose was to practice docking with an unmanned Agena target satellite, but the Agena was destroyed in a failed launch attempt. On top of that, the primary crew for the mission was killed in a flying accident, replaced at the last minute by the backup crew of command pilot Thomas Stafford and pilot Eugene Cernan.

To make up for the lost Agena, NASA sent up a backup satellite called the Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA). Launched atop an Atlas rocket on June 1, 1966, the ATDA successfully attained an orbit 161 miles (259 km) above the Earth, but telemetry indicated the nose cone fairing that protected the satellite hadn't jettisoned properly. What that meant, no one was quite sure.

Two days later, on June 3, Gemini 9A launched. Matching orbit with the ATDA, Stafford and Cernan soon made radar contact with the satellite and closed with it. When they got within 900 ft (274 m), they got their first good view – and it wasn't very encouraging.

"That's a weird looking machine," said Stafford. "Would you believe that there's a nose cone on that rascal. The shroud is half open. It looks like an angry alligator out there rotating around."

The fairing had been designed to fall open in two pieces and drop behind the booster as it flew into orbit, but that hadn't happened. The bizarre sight put an end to any docking practice.

But the most frustrating things about the whole episode is that it looked like something the astronauts could fix.

"You could almost knock it off," said Cernan.

The crew even rang up mission control and asked for permission to nudge the fairing off using their own spacecraft, but NASA, ever on the side of caution, vetoed the idea, so what could have been the world's first space salvage never came off.

Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (1964 - 1968)

Another thing that needed to be practiced before landing on the Moon was, well, landing on the Moon. Trying out a new type of flying machine is relatively easy, but not if what you're testing is a spaceship designed to land on the Moon and you're stuck on Earth. Never mind not being able to use reliable technology like wings, how do you train pilots to fly in one-sixth Earth gravity when they're at full gravity?

Since simulators can only do so much, NASA contracted Bell Aerosystems to create the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV). In only 14 months the company delivered two of them and they were used from 1964 to 1968 to familiarize the Apollo astronauts with how to handle the Lunar Excursion Module, which was still under development.

Nicknamed the Flying Bedstead, the LLRV was anything but graceful. The ungainly collection of aluminum alloy trusses had an open cockpit and a gimbal-mounted General Electric CF700-2V turbofan engine with 4,200 lb of thrust. The latter's purpose was to lift the craft to an altitude of up to 4,000 ft (1,200 m), then throttle back until it was only supporting five-sixths of the weight. The balance would be supported by two hydrogen peroxide rockets to mimic operating in the low gravity of the Moon.

The LLRV could lift vertically, hover, and maneuver horizontally . The trouble was, it couldn't do it very well. It was notoriously skittish and it flew so low that in the event of an emergency, the only thing to do was bail out – fast.

One flight of the LLRV at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston on May 6, 1968 almost changed history when astronaut Neil Armstrong was at the controls. The future Apollo 11 commander reached an altitude of 200 ft when the propellant leak started and all the flight controls went dead as the thrusters used to steer the vehicle stopped working. Without hesitating, Armstrong ejected and four seconds later his parachute set him on the ground while the LLRV ended up in a fiery tangle nearby.

So, what did Armstrong then do? He walked back to his desk to start on the paperwork as if nothing happened.

Fellow Apollo astronaut Alan Bean later said, "I can't think of another person, let alone another astronaut, who would have just gone back to his office after ejecting a fraction of a second before getting killed."

Skylab (1973 -1979)

Skylab was the United States' first space station and a successful one, but it was one of those spacecraft that never gets a break. It was sent into Earth orbit on May 14, 1973 atop the last Saturn V launch and was expected to do nothing more than deploy its solar panels and wait for its first of three crews to arrive, but things didn't work out.

During the launch, a large section of the shield that encased Skylab was torn away. This shield protected the hull not only from micrometeoroids, but also the heat of the sun, so the interior temperature of the habitat soon rose to unbearable levels and threatened to damage the stores and equipment inside. Worse, one of the two main solar panels was ripped away and the second one was jammed shut by debris.

When the first manned mission to Skylab lifted off on May 25, it had a remarkable fix-it kit stowed in the Apollo Command Module. Entering the station wearing gas masks to protect them from any toxic fumes caused by the heat on the plastic insulation, the three astronauts used a small instrument port to push a giant Mylar parasol outside. When it unfurled, it cut off the sunlight and the temperature inside dropped back to normal. They then went on a spacewalk to manually deploy the stuck solar panel in one of the few space maintenance tasks to involve hitting things with a hammer.

When the last crew left Skylab on February 8, 1974, there was much talk about reactivating the station one day and the then under development Space Shuttle was eventually tasked with visiting it to boost into a higher orbit. Unfortunately, someone didn't do their sums correctly.

In 1973, British mathematician Desmond King-Hele of the Royal Aircraft Establishment said the 1970s would be marked by increased solar activity. This would cause the Earth's atmosphere to expand and Skylab's orbit would decay faster due to increased air density. It may seem like near Earth orbit is a hard vacuum, but there's actually a tenuous layer of gas there and any changes can seriously affect a satellite's orbit. According to King-Hele, NASA only had until 1979 to save Skylab – well before the Space Shuttle was ready.

The upshot was that Skylab wasn't only coming back to Earth soon, but on a trajectory that NASA had little control over. Though there was only a one in 600 billion chance of any particular person being hit by debris from the station as it burned up in the atmosphere, there was a one in seven chance of it landing on a city of over 100,000 people.

With as little control over Skylab that they had, NASA tried to aim it at the Indian Ocean, but a slight error in the trajectory caused it to burn up slower than predicted and debris landed southeast of Perth, Australia. No one was hurt and there was no property damage, but the residents did get a nice fireworks display.

Hubble Space Telescope (1990 - Present)

Today, the Hubble Space Telescope is revered as a modern marvel that sends home spectacular images of the Universe, but when it was launched in 1990, it was regarded as the ultimate white elephant – not surprising given its project costs have gone from US$400 million to US$10 billion in the past quarter century.

The Hubble wasn't helped by having its deployment delayed from 1986 because of the Challenger disaster, but what happened after the Space Shuttle deposited it in Earth orbit was downright embarrassing. Within weeks of launching, images sent back by Hubble made it obvious that there was something seriously wrong with the telescope.

The images were good, but not what was expected for the money spent. The telescope simply couldn't focus properly because the primary mirror had been ground to the wrong shape, which introduced spherical aberrations. In other words, NASA paid for a state-of-the-art SLR camera and got a Box Brownie.

Luckily, the very precision of the mirror saved Hubble from early retirement. Since the defect was such a precisely made one, a precisely made optical solution could fix it. In other words, Hubble needed spectacles.

Since the Hubble was already designed to be serviced by astronauts, NASA developed the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR), which was fitted by a Shuttle crew in January 1994.

No one knows what the Hubble thought of the frames.

Mars Climate Orbiter (1998 - 1999)

Sometimes the biggest of disasters can come from the smallest of mistakes. Never mind the want of a nail, what about a simple screw up between Imperial and Metric?

On December 11, 1998, NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter mission set out for the Red Planet on a mission to study the Martian climate, atmosphere, and surface, as well as acting as a communications relay for the Mars Surveyor and Mars Polar Lander.

It all went as smooth as silk as far as Mars missions go until the unmanned probe executed its insertion into Mars orbit. Suddenly, on September 23, 1999, all contact was lost with the spacecraft. Subsequent analysis of its trajectory showed it had burned up in the atmosphere after coming in too close to the planet.

What had happened? It turned out that NASA was using metric units to measure the thrust needed to put the orbiter on the right trajectory, but the main contractor Lockheed Martin was using English units in the ground-based computer used to make the calculations. Lockheed calculated the thrust in pound-seconds, but NASA interpreted these as Newton-seconds, so the orbiter came in too low and burned up.

It just goes to show the devil is very much in the details.

Genesis (2001 - 2004)

When NASA's Genesis mission to collect samples of the solar wind and return them to Earth returned home after three years in space, it seemed like a triumph. Launched on August 8, 2001, it had gone into deep space and used a remarkable aerogel collector to trap particles streaming out from the Sun like flies in amber. At the end of the collection phase, the sampler was folded and sealed into a return capsule, which was set on an intercept course with Earth.

On September 8, 2004, the capsule entered the atmosphere over Oregon at a speed of 11 km/s (24,700 mph). Protected by its heat shield, it slowed down to supersonic speed and a parachute deployed to slow it down more. Then, before it touched down, a helicopter snared the capsule in midair and flew off to the recovery base.

At least, that was the idea. What really happened was that a faulty deceleration sensor failed to trigger the drogue parachute deployment. Still traveling in free fall at 311 km/h (193 mph), the capsule pranged into the floor of the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah so hard that the capsule cracked open and part of the sample chamber was breached.

At first, it seemed like a total loss, but luckily the soft ground cushioned the impact so the capsule didn't disintegrate, and careful recovery work managed to save some of the samples despite the contamination caused by the crash.

But the one thing that truly makes Genesis stand out was the chutzpah displayed by one NASA spokesman on the day of the incident, who said that the mission was a complete success … right up until the crash.

Beagle 2 (2003)

Finally, there's Beagle 2. This grassroots little Mars Lander That Could of a mission had a sort of come-from-behind spirit to it that defied failure. Named after the famous ship, HMS Beagle, that carried Charles Darwin around the world in the 1830s, it was the brainchild of Professor Colin Pillinger of Britain's Open University and was developed along with the University of Leicester. The first British interplanetary probe, it was designed to look for signs of present or past life on Mars.

The remarkable thing about Beagle 2 was that it was a shoestring operation which, despite the participation of several major aerospace companies, only managed to move forward through constant promotion by Pillinger who raised public awareness and funds for the project using stunts like getting the pop band Blur to compose a short song to be used as the spacecraft's call sign, and persuading artist Damien Hirst to paint the test card used to calibrate the imaging system.

In the end, the project managed to raise £44 million (US$80 million) from the private sector and £22 million (US$40 million) from the British government – lunch money compared to other Mars missions. With this, they managed to build a 33.2 kg (73 lb) clam shell spacecraft designed to land either way up on Mars, then deploy a set of four circular solar panels, an arm with a camera, a rock sampler, a spectroscope, and a tethered "mole" rover that would burrow a few feet from the spacecraft before being winched back.

On June 2, 2003, Beagle 2 lifted off attached to ESA's Mars Express orbiter. Six days before the orbiter reached Mars, it was released to proceed on its own and entered the Martian atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory at 20,000 km/h (10,800 mph) on December 25.

It was never heard from again.

For the next twelve years, the world wondered what had happened. After overcoming so many obstacles and beating so many odds, how could Beagle 2 simply vanish? There were questions raised in the British House of Commons, official inquiries were made, and many theories were put forth as to what happened. Meanwhile, Beagle 2's father, Pillinger, passed away in 2014.

Then in January of 2015, NASA disclosed that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had spotted the little lander. On high resolution imagery, it showed up on the Martian sands like a cloverleaf, proving it had survived the landing and hadn't crashed as feared.

But what happened? Why didn't it radio home? The exact details are still unclear, but one likely scenario is based on how Beagle landed.

Though the probe was protected by heat shields and slowed down by parachutes, its actual landing was achieved while encased in airbags to cushion the impact. NASA's experience with similar airbag landings show that spacecraft bounce much more than expected on Mars. It's possible that Beagle landed harder than planned and either bounced back into its parachute or continued to bounce as its airbags deflated, so it became tangled. When it opened, the images show that it could only deploy two of its four solar panels, and the airbag deflated on top of it, so it couldn't charge.

In other words, when it came time to wake up, Beagle 2 got trapped in the bedding.

So, what can we take away from all this? The conquest of space is far from a done deal. It's a difficult, hostile place that we don't fully understand and probably never will. Small things can have big consequences in this game, and it takes a great deal of determination and ingenuity to overcome the challenges involved. If anything, these failures do much to highlight the incredible achievement of the many missions that we have managed to pull off so far.

What have we missed? Give us your pick of the biggest flops in the history of space exploration in the comments section.

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