Space is hard. There’s a reason we use rocket science as a benchmark for anything extremely difficult. I for one champion all things space and eagerly await every single upcoming space event. But, in order to move forward, we’d better look back at some past failures and see what we’ve learned from them.
What better way to do that than to watch some of the biggest boom’s in spaceflight history? BUT as always on my site, this isn’t just a random compilation of crazy explosions, nope sorry…
I’ll be teaching you what went wrong and other random facts about each mission so we too can learn while we watch some fireworks….
After all, mistakes are only mistakes if you don’t learn anything from them. That being said, let’s see some of the biggest booms in rocket history!
Now before we start, I do want to mention I omitted any mission that had a loss of life as those are tragedies and need to be treated in a way that honors the lives lost and are sensitive the families, friends and people who deal with that reality every day.
After you read this article, let me know if you want me to do one of these for biggest face palms, funniest moments, or closest calls? Perhaps, all three?
Oh and one last thing, these are in order of what I think are spectacular and not necessarily the order of actual magnitude of explosions. Alright, here we go!
#12 SpaceX Falcon 9 landing attempts. 2015. Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship. Atlantic Ocean
So let’s start off with perhaps my favorite booms to come out in recent space history. Of course, I’m talking about SpaceX’s landing attempts with their Falcon 9. We saw PLENTY of rapid unscheduled disassemblies as SpaceX honed in on the once thought impossible; Propulsively landing and reusing an orbital class liquid fueled booster.
Starting with their first attempt at landing on their autonomous spaceport drone ship for the CRS-5 mission on January 10th, 2015. After successful stage separation, the booster homed in on its landing platform, the autonomous spaceport drone ship. It fired up it’s center merlin engine to perform its landing burn.
Woah, ok so what went wrong? The booster ran out of the hydraulic fluid that powers the grid fins which steer the booster through the atmosphere moments before touching down.
This caused them to remain stuck in a fixed position, causing the booster to go out of control just before touching down. The engine gimbal couldn’t correct for this and it made the booster come in all sorts of wonky.
Don’t forget while watching this that the ship its landing on is the size of a football field and the booster is 45 meters or 150 feet tall. In other words, that’s a 15 story building crashing down on the deck… woah.
But this was a great first attempt at landing, after all, they hit their target from over 100km’s or 60 miles in altitude, after traveling over 7,000 km/h or almost 4,500 mph, and after traveling about 300 kms or 185 miles downrange from the launch pad.
The next attempt was also pretty spectacular for mission CRS-6 on April 14th, 2015. Their second attempt at landing on the droneship got even closer…. It kisses the deck andddd….
Boom. Would you look at those shock waves! Ahhh terrifyingly beautiful. Dang it that one was close!
Just before touchdown, the center Merlin 1D engine that performs the landing burn experienced stiction… a word I was unfamiliar with until I heard it in this context… in other words, it had a sticky throttle valve.
This caused a delay in throttle inputs, which made the rocket have too much horizontal velocity as it touched down, and subsequently tipped over.
There are a few other great booms as SpaceX figured out how to land the Falcon 9. I definitely suggest watching their hilarious video titled “How not to land an orbital class rocket”
And don’t forget, these were experimental attempts at something people thought was impossible. The primary mission on these flights were still perfectly successful, so these are probably the biggest boom to success ratio ever, since it was just a bonus had they landed. Which they now do all the time with great reliability.
#11 June 11, 1957. Atlas SM-65A, LC-14, CCAFS, Florida
On June 11, 1957, the United States’ Air Force launched the first ever Atlas Missile, the Convair SM-65A from Launch Complex 14 in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Like all rockets in this video, it was of course uncrewed.
This first version of the Atlas only had two engines, instead of the famous 3 engine Atlas that had a sustainer engine and stage and a half design like the one that eventually put John Glenn into orbit less than 5 years later.
Engine start went great followed by a successful let go of the launcher release system. All was going well until T + 26 seconds when the B-2 engine suddenly lost thrust, followed two seconds later by the B-1 engine.
The Atlas tumbled end over end to a maximum altitude of 2900 meters or 9800 feet before being remotely terminated by the range safety officer, who I swear had to have been sleeping on the job. Look how long they let it fly on fire before they finally hit the bye bye button. Any day now Steve. Uhhh Steve…. STEVE?!?!?
Although this was a pretty big scary looking boom, since this was the first flight of the Atlas, it was actually considered a pretty big success.
#10 December 12, 1959. Titan 1 C-3 (RVX-3), LC-16, CCAFS, Florida
On December 12, 1959 the United States awaits its 6th attempt at launching their newest and most advanced rocket at the time, the Titan 1. The Titan 1 was the US’s first multistage intercontinental ballistic missile.
This was also the first time the Air Force would be utilizing their brand new launchpad, Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The rocket was fully fueled up, and upon engine ignition, the rocket began shaking pretty excessively. So excessively in fact it actually set off the flight termination system while it was still on the pad. Ummmm whoops.
There goes that brand new Launch Complex 16… Actually… believe it or not, the launch pad became operational again less than 2 months later. It must be thanks to those wonderful little sprinklers gently hosing down the hellish landscape that once was a launch pad
#9 March 2, 1965 Atlas-Centaur 5, LC-36A, CCAFS, Florida
Convair, the manufacturer of the original Atlas rocket was developing an advanced upper stage for their rockets. This upper stage was the first production rocket stage to use liquid hydrogen for its fuel.
The centaur upper stage would go on to do incredible things and is arguably the best upper stage in the world still to this day. As a matter of fact, as of January 2018, it has been used on 245 launches.
But on March 2nd, 1965, it wouldn’t get a chance to spread its wings, or fire its engine I suppose.
At T+0.88 seconds, there was a sudden main fuel valve closure causing the entire Atlas booster to come straight back down on the pad. This created quite the boom.
As a matter of fact, it was the biggest on pad explosion at Cape Canaveral for over 5 decades… until our next boom happened…
#8 September 1, 2016. Falcon 9 Amos-6, SLC-40, CCAFS, Florida
Rockets blowing up on the launch pad was fairly common in the early days of spaceflight, but even modern rockets sometimes experience failures on the launch pad.
On September 1st, 2016, SpaceX was preparing to do a hold down static fire of one of their Falcon 9 rockets. This was a pretty routine mission for SpaceX, preparing to put a 5,500 KG or 12,000 pound satellite into geostationary transfer orbit for Spacecom with the AMOS-6 satellite.
SpaceX does a static fire of all their rockets, multiple times even. If you want to know more about how or why SpaceX static fires, I have this video that goes into it super in depth!
All was going as planned until completely out of the blue, BOOM. No more rocket. No more 244 million dollar satellite. No more launch pad 40.
This instant failure baffled SpaceX engineers since everything was looking completely nominal during the fuel up with no initial known cause of failure.
Despite what the internet thought, surprisingly it wasn’t from a sniper on a nearby rooftop not a UFO….or was it? Nope!
After months of testing, a new failure mode was discovered. Something that had never been experienced on other rockets. Due to SpaceX utilizing super chilled fuel and oxidizer, they found that the liquid oxygen was getting inside the carbon fiber bonds of the internal helium tanks which maintain tank pressure.
Once the liquid oxygen came in contact with the even colder helium tank, it would turn into a solid, expand and break apart the carbon fiber weave of the COPV or composite overwrapped pressure vessel that holds the helium.
This caused the helium tank to release all its pressure instantly, which then over pressurized the oxygen tank it lies inside, which then caused the entire vehicle to explode. SpaceX learned from this lesson and changed their fueling procedures until a newly designed COPV 2.0 goes online.
#7 October 28, 2014. Antares, CRS Orb-3, MARS-LP-0A, Wallops Island, Virginia
NASA made an awesome decision to hire private companies to deliver cargo to the international space station after the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. This decision made for a great competition and brought the cost of delivery down to an all time low.
These missions known as CRS, or commercial resupply missions, were won by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, who later was known as Orbital ATK who just recently was bought by Northrop Grumman and is now called Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems…
The program was looking fantastic with 4 successful SpaceX launches and two successful Orbital ATK launches already in the books.
On October 28th, 2014, Orbital ATK was poised to launch their third Cygnus spacecraft on top of their third Antares rocket destined for the international space station. The Antares rocket took off at 7:22:38 pm local eastern time from Orbital’s launch pad, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Launch Pad 0, or MARS LP-0A.
15 seconds after liftoff, the vehicle suddenly falls apart from the bottom up.
The vehicle fell right back down on the launch pad, resulting in a huge HUGE boom.
I personally know several launch photographers that were there and felt this one from only a few miles away. My favorite quote comes from photographer Matt Travis exclaiming, “hold on, it’s gonna be loud.”
Yeahhhh I can’t even imagine! So what happened?
The liquid oxygen turbo pump suddenly exploded on one of the vehicles AJ-26 engines, which are refurbished leftover NK-33 engines from the 70’s for the Soviet Union’s planned but never completed, second generation moon rocket, the N-1F.
Luckily no one was hurt and the failure made Orbital change the Antares engine to the RD-181. Which ironically is the exact same move the Russian’s made with their Soyuz 2.
#6 July 16, 1959 Juno II – Explorer S-1, LC-5, CCAFS, Florida
On July 16, 1959, NASA prepared to launch their third Juno II rocket. A rocket initially derived from the Jupiter missiles, the Juno featured solid rocket booster upper stages capable of putting 41 kgs or 90 pounds into low Earth Orbit.
This particular mission, Explorer S-1 was the sixth flight of the explorers program whose objectives were to measure the Earth’s radiation balance and other cosmic and x-rays.
At 12:37 p.m. local eastern time, the Juno II took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch complex 5. Immediately after leaving the pad, the rocket suddenly veered off course.
5.5 seconds into the flight, it was terminated by the Range Safety Officer, but it barely had a chance to detonate before erupting in an enormous fireball 76 meters or 249 feet northwest of the pad.
A short circuit of the rocket’s guidance system made the Rocketdyne S-3D engines gimbal in the wrong direction, pointing the rocket west in an instant. The following investigation led to adding a conformal coating on the circuit boards that helped protect future Juno II and similar rockets from a similar fate.
The Juno II ended up flying a total of 10 times, with only 4 successful flights. Ummm I’m glad we’re beyond those odds of success these days!
#5 June 4th, 1996, Ariane 5, Cluster, Guiana Space Centre ELA-3, French Guiana
On June 4th, 1996, The European Space Agency is ready to launch their newest rocket, the Ariane 5, an indirect follow up to their very successful Ariane 4. One of its most exciting features is it was designed to be able to fly humans as well!
The Ariane 5 launches from a beautiful launch pad located at the Guiana Space Center in the French Guiana, an overseas region of France located on the north east tip of South America, and situated very close to the equator.
Speaking of launching from the equator. This is something we’ll talk about in an upcoming video, why it’s advantageous to launch near the equator and why it’s not more common to do so.
On Tuesday, June 4th, 1996 the world watched as a new exciting heavy launch vehicle sat waiting for its maiden flight carrying four Cluster spacecraft for the European Space Agency. The Ariane 5 first powers up its Vulcain 2 cryogenic main engine and sits on the pad until it achieves full thrust. Then the two massive solid rocket boosters ignite and the vehicle leaps off the pad.
All was looking really quite good. But then suddenly 30 seconds into the flight, the vehicle takes a hard 90 degree turn and disintegrates from the aerodynamic forces.
The resulting fireball is the automatic flight termination system which broke the vehicle apart.
It was found that a malfunction in the control software caused the vehicle to think it was 90 degrees off course.
The internal SRI software exception was caused during execution of a data conversion from 64-bit floating point to 16-bit signed integer value. The floating point number had a value greater than what could be represented by a 16-bit signed integer. This resulted in an Operand Error. This unexpected high value for internal alignment function result called BH, or Horizontal Bias, related to the horizontal velocity sensed by the platform. The value of BH was much higher than expected because the early part of the trajectory of Ariane 5 differs from that of Ariane 4 and results in considerably higher horizontal velocity values.
Uhhh in other words, this was one of the most expensive software bugs in history, costing 370 million dollars.
This launch would also be fodder for the biggest face palms of spaceflight because they used the same inertial reference system as the Ariane 4 but they didn’t test it before hand with the Ariane 5’s flight profile. The data overwhelmed the computer causing it to error out. It would’ve been easily avoidable and discovered with a simple ground simulation.
Whoops. But since then the Ariane 5 has gone on to launch 97 times, with 1 more boomy failure and 3 not so boomie failures. Not bad, not bad… I still think it’s a really cool vehicle.
#5 July 2nd, 2013 Proton-M / GLONASS Baikonur Cosmodrome site 81/24, Kazakhstan
Only July 2nd, 2013, Russia prepared a fairly routine launch of their Proton-M rocket to put 3 new GLONASS navigation satellites into space. As a matter of fact, it was going to be the 388th launch of the Proton rocket… so this was about as routine as it gets for a rocket launch.
The launch went off right on schedule at 8:38 local time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome site 81 pad 24 in Kazakhstan.
Almost immediately after leaving the pad, the rocket began to veer off in one direction, and then some of the 6 RD-276 engines would gimbal in the other direction as it began to clearly go off course.
Now hold on here… At this point, wouldn’t you think the Russian Federal Space Agency or ROSCOSMOS would terminate the rocket? It’s 90 degrees off course and is a giant 19 story tall, 68 metric ton or 150,000 pound missile heading for who knows where??!
Well unlike US rockets, Russia doesn’t believe in self destruct explosives… uhhhh let’s see how this goes….
The payload fairing and upper stage got ripped apart by the aerodynamic stresses as the vehicle plummets back to earth, engines still firing full bore.
The rocket didn’t release all of its explosive energy until it impacted the ground, resulting in a HUGE fireball.
There are so many videos of this particular crash from varying terrifyingly close vantage points that shakes spectators when the boom hits them.
Investigators found three of the first stage angular velocity sensors were installed upside down. This took serious physical effort. In fact there were arrows that pointed up that were installed pointing down… The sensors are only designed to fit in one direction, so it sounds like the technician potentially hit them in place with a hammer and this somehow went unnoticed by quality control and supervisors.
Ok, so again. This is another massive massive face palm. BUT, this one is such a big and dramatic boom!
As a matter of fact, due to the fact that the Proton utilizes super toxic hypergolic fuels, this event is considered by some the largest amount of ground pollution ever caused by a rocket.
#3 August 12, 1998 Titan IV / NROL-7, CCAFS, SLC-41, Florida
The United States’ National Reconnaissance Office was set to launch their 7th secret satellite to geostationary orbit launching on top of a Titan IV rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.
The Titan IV comes from a long family tree of rockets and is the most powerful and most capable version featuring two MASSIVE solid rocket boosters on either side of the rocket.
August 12, 1998 was a picture perfect morning, and the Titan IV had a successful lift off at 7:30 a.m. local time.
Sometime just before the vehicle reached maximum aerodynamic pressure or Max Q, it suddenly burst into a dramatic fireworks display.
The cause was an electrical short which made the guidance computer momentarily shut down at T+39. A mere second later, its power was restored but the computer overreacted and sent commands to aggressively pitch and yaw the rocket to correct its course.
The rocket couldn’t handle the significant change in course as it approached Max Q, and the forces ripped one of the solid rocket boosters off, which triggered the self destruct sequence of that booster, and subsequently the rest of the vehicle.
An investigation showed that this particular booster, the last Titan IV-A to launch, had been sitting around for several years. It had dozens of damaged or chafed wires and should never have been launched in that condition.
The Air Force was pushing for a “launch on demand” program for the DOD, and this particular failure made them reevaluate how to handle such tight deadlines.
#2 January 17, 1997, Delta II, GPS-IIR-1, CCAFS, SLC-17A, Florida
Ok… number 2 huh? Wow… this better be good… well, this one is something special, I’ll tell you that.
On January 17, 1997, the USAF was set to launch their first GPS version II satellite on top of the most Kerbal of all rockets, the Delta II with 9 strap on solid rocket boosters. You can never have too many boosters, or can you… dun dun dunnnnnn
Well at 11:28 a.m. the Delta II had a successful lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 17A.
Next thing you know the rocket turned into a HUGE firework, raining fire all over Florida’s Space Coast from only about 500 meters or 1600 feet above the ground.
250 tons of debris rained down within a full km of the launch pad, even destroying around 20 cars parked outside the blockhouse where ground crew were safe, ish. This led to some interesting insurance claims, like Brian Modsell, having to tell his insurance company that his truck got hit by a rocket…
The explosion was the result of a failure of one of the solid rocket boosters. The casing was damaged during transportation on a newly introduced system.
The cracked casing of the number 2 GEM-40 SRB started to grow at T+6 seconds and eventually ruptured, causing the number 8 SRB to fail which then caused the entire vehicle to be automatically destructed.
A few seconds later, the range safety officer sent commands to destroy the rest of the vehicle in case any large pieces remained.
To me, this is probably one of the most epic booms in all of spaceflight history… but it’s not quite THE most epic… that has to go to…
July 3, 1968 N1, L1 Zond, Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 110, Kazakhstan
You had to see this one coming right? If you didn’t… get ready… we definitely saved the best for last.
At the end of the 1960’s, the United States and the Soviet Union were deep in a space race with the end goal being putting a human on the moon. This led to the most feverish paced rocket evolution in spaceflight history going from just launching small sub orbital missiles to the largest rockets ever made still to this day in less than a decade.
Although it’s easy to remember the wildly successful Saturn V that the United States developed, there was a Soviet counterpart that was even more powerful and in my opinion way crazier.
The only thing is, we didn’t really know much about the Soviet’s lunar program until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And when we did, I think the rest of the world’s rocket scientists’ jaws collectively hit the floor.
Welcome the N1. Although slightly shorter than the Saturn V, the N1 was insanely massive. The bottom of the vehicle was an insane 17 meters or 55 feet wide and had 30 NK-15 engines on it.
Yeahhhh and you thought the Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines was a lot. Now imagine trying to control 30 relatively new and not well very tested engines using a 1960’s Soviet era flight computer… You see where this is going.
Well on July 3rd, 1969 the Soviet Union was set to launch their second N1 rocket after their first attempt at launching just a few months earlier.
The first launch went fairly well, I guess considering two engines were shut down by T+6 seconds, propellant leaked, a fire started, electrical shorts happened…. And by T+68 seconds the first stage was automatically shut down by the computer. Not bad actually.
So this second launch had some big shoes to fill. The Soviets were hoping to do a moon flyby to take pictures of possible crewed landing sites.
At 11:18 PM local time, site 110 at Baikonur Cosmodrome roared to life with the ignition of all 30 NK-15 engines. For the first few seconds everything looked great.
You just witnessed one of the largest known non-nuclear, human made explosion in history. Over 2,000 metric tons of propellant blew up in an instant and some fuel even managed to rain down on the launch pad for the next hour and a half!
So what happened? Well, a lot. As soon as the rocket cleared the tower, a large flash followed by parts of the rocket beginning to fall off the bottom. Ummm we might need those…
All but one engine, plucky ole engine 18, shutdown in an instant. But due to #18 staying on, the entire rocket pitched over to a 45 degree angle when it hit the ground.
The problem arose when before liftoff the #8 engine had its LOX turbo pump explode which then severed the surrounding prop lines. The KORD computer that controlled the engines automatically shuts down the opposite engine if one fails, so right away, #8’s opposite engine shut down, followed by #7, #19, #20 and #21.
But perhaps the biggest failure is that the Soviets didn’t have a way to test the rocket without launching it. The first stage was so big, it couldn’t be sent to the pad in one piece and instead had to be assembled with each launch.
Worse of all, they only tested about 2 out of every 6 engines and none of the units were the actual flight units because they used pyrotechnic valves that could only be used once instead of hydraulic or mechanical ones.
This in my opinion is where things truly went wrong. With the pressure to keep up with the United States, and a lack of funding, they pushed their luck too far.
This launch destroyed the launch complex so bad, it took 18 months to rebuild it. By this point, there was little motivation or funding to continue the N1 program so it only launched two more times before ultimately being cancelled.
Dang it. I really really want to see an N1 succeed. There were even 3 other N1’s that could’ve flown that wound up being scrapped. What a shame.
We should start a kickstarter to build a full scale N1 replica to put somewhere. Perhaps in my backyard…
Well there we have it. Those were some pretty serious booms. I hope you had fun reading this, but more importantly I really hope you learned something!
Let me know if you enjoyed this style of article, if so, perhaps I could be talked into doing biggest face palms, funniest moments and closest calls as well…
What other questions do you have about spaceflight? Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments below!
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