Millions of years on from when our ancestors first discovered fire and invented the wheel, humans have only just started scratching the surface when it comes to space exploration.

Although we have made huge strides in learning about Earth’s surroundings in the past 100 years in particular, there is still so much about the universe we don’t yet know.

However, for what we do know of the universe, we are indebted to some of the earliest astronauts who lost their lives in space disasters while trying to shed light on what’s out there. Here are five disasters you should know about.

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Edward White, Virgil Grissom and Roger Chaffee were all killed on board Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967

1. Apollo 1 (1967)

On January 27, 1967 the US was preparing to deploy astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee on its first manned space mission.

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However, all three astronauts were killed after a fire broke out in their command module during a simulated launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The fire was caused by a stray spark in the pure oxygen environment. Design flaws also meant rescuers were unable to open the escape hatch in time to save the astronauts.

2. Soyuz 1 (1967)

The space race between the Soviet Union and the US in the late 1960’s meant that corners were often cut for the sake of getting ahead. Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov’s life was unfortunately the cost of the Soviets rushing to get into the lead.

He was the first person to actually die in space. The Soyuz 1 mission, launched just three months after the Apollo 1 disaster, was supposed to take Vladimir Komarov to the moon, but instead his ship came crashing back down to Earth on April 24, 1967.

The first problems with his shuttle were reported almost immediately after his launch, forcing the Soviets to abort the mission, but a faulty solar panel left the cosmonaut with no power. The shuttle parachutes then failed to deploy, leaving Komarov unable to prevent the crash.

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Vladimir Komarov
Vladimir Komarov was the first human being ever to actually die in space

3. Soyuz 11 (1971)

Three Russian cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz 11 were returning home from a successful deployment to the Salyut-1, the world’s first space station, on June 30, 1971.

Everything during the three-month mission had gone perfectly, and even their shuttle’s re-entry to Earth went according to plan, with nothing unexpected. But when the hatch of the shuttle was opened, the three cosmonauts were found dead.

It was later discovered that a faulty air vent that had opened when the orbital and descent modules separated had caused their cabin to become depressurised. Owing that none of them were wearing their space suits, they are believed to have suffocated in a space of 30 minutes before landing.

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Christa McAuliffe
Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who was going to become the first citizen observer/payload specialist in space, died in the disaster, was among the seven astronauts who died on the Challenger in 1986

4. Challenger (1986)

Millions of people were watching the Challenger space shuttle take off from Florida on January 28, 1986 when it exploded while being broadcast live on TV.

All seven US astronauts on board were killed when their rocket broke apart 73 seconds after launch, with it crashing down in pieces into the Atlantic Ocean.

An investigation later found that the cold weather had caused damage to the spacecraft’s rubber O-rings which separated its rocket boosters and prevented fuel leaks.

crew members
The Columbia shuttle broke apart upon re-entry over Texas at 203,000 feet February 1, 2003, killing the seven-person crew members on board
5. Columbia (2003)

US space shuttle Columbia had long proved to be a sturdy ship, having first taken flight in 1981. But on February 1, 2003, the shuttle broke up during landing after a 16-day mission, killing all seven astronauts on board.

It had been reported during the shuttle’s launch that a piece of insulating foam had broken off its fuel tank, but with such incidents occurring before without causing any major problems, NASA did not believe there was any cause for concern.

However, hot gases and smoke got into the damaged wing during re-entry and caused it to break off. The rest of the ship subsequently burned up and broke into pieces, with debris raining down across Texas.

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