From wolves to lightning strikes, even the most well-planned space flights are often plagued by ridiculous accidents. Sometimes lots of them all in a row. And even more unbelievably, sometimes everyone involved lives.
1. Voskhod 2
In the 1960s the Soviets took a great leap forward in the space race when they sent Voskhod 2 into orbit with two cosmonauts aboard. One of them, pilot Alexey Leonov, became the first human to leave a spacecraft and perform a spacewalk. While an impressive feat, it came very close to disaster: the Soviets had failed to account for the effect of the vacuum of space on Leonov’s spacesuit.
After 12 minutes outside the craft, the cosmonaut found that he could not bend his suit sufficiently to return through the hatch. Soviet television had to cut away because they feared the worst. By opening a valve in the suit, he was able to reduce the pressure enough to get back in. Once inside, Leonov and his co-pilot could barely get the hatch closed. At the time, reports never indicated that Leonov had any trouble during his spacewalk, but the cosmonaut later revealed that his 12-minute ordeal left him up to his knees in sweat—it filled the legs of his spacesuit. And had the spacewalk gone any more awry, Leonov had a suicide pill handy.
After Leonov and Belyayev were safely inside, they found that there was so little room in the capsule that they couldn’t actually get back in their seats, throwing off Voskhod’s center of gravity. On reentry, they ended up hundreds of miles off-course. The men were forced to spend a night in the woods of Siberia, and while the door had been blown off on impact, they were at least heavily armed to protect themselves from wolves and bears. Although helicopters located the cosmonauts, the woods were too thick to land and the two were not rescued until the next day.
2. Apollo 12
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but the crew of Apollo 12 would beg to differ. Only a few months after the first moon landing, astronauts Pete Conrad, Alan Bean and Dick Gordon were on their way to repeat the feat when they were struck by lightning during launch ... twice in less than 20 seconds. Numerous systems failed and the astronauts spent a long five minutes waiting to see if they would come back on. After orbiting Earth a few extra times, it was determined nothing too important had been broken and they continued on to a successful moon mission.
While Apollo 12’s moon landing went well, the way back home was a little crazy. Alan Bean discovered that returning to gravity presented its own problems: as their command module splashed down in the ocean, a 16mm camera flew out of storage and bounced around the capsule, hitting Bean in the forehead, rendering him unconscious and resulting in a concussion and six stitches.
3. Apollo-Soyuz Test Project
Astronauts train hundreds of times for their missions, learning the procedures necessary by heart. But to err is human, they say, and there were three humans in the Apollo craft reentering the atmosphere when things started to go downhill.
It was 1975, and the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight was completed successfully. NASA's men were on their way back to Earth, but it wasn't all smooth sailing. Someone forgot to flip a single switch to the correct position in the reaction control center. Suddenly poisonous nitrogen tetroxide gas was filling the command module. Astronaut Vance Brand momentarily fell unconscious before another managed to hand out gas masks to the crew. To top it all off, one of the bags in the nosecone — designed to inflate and hold the capsule upright in the water — failed, leaving the capsule suspended upside-down in the ocean after splashdown.
Crewmember Donald "Deke" Slayton reported in his biography that the levels of nitrogen tetroxide were high enough to kill the crew, but in the end, despite the danger, all three recovered after spending a few weeks in the hospital.
4. Progress M-34/Mir Docking
Traffic accidents are pretty common here on the ground, but vehicles occasionally have fender-benders in space, too. In 1997, astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the Mir space station were docking with their unmanned supply craft, Progress M-34. Rather than docking automatically, the crew members were practicing with manual controls in an attempt to reduce future resupply mission costs.
Unfortunately, they needed more practice.
Instead of docking smoothly, Progress slammed into the solar array on the side of the Spektr module, punching a hole in the panel and creating a breach in the module's airtight seal. Crewmembers felt their ears pop and heard hissing as the module lost cabin pressure. The three crew members inside were able to escape before the module depressurized too far.