When EDL systems fail

When EDL systems fail

EDL systems are challenging and have a relatively high failure rate as opposed to other spacecraft subsystems. This is largely due to the extreme conditions and uncertainty that comes along with them. Failure of an EDL system can, unfortunately, leads to the death of the crew. The sacrifice of these astronauts has led to major improvements in astronaut safety and EDL procedures. For every successful EDL system, we owe our gratitude to these brave Cosmonauts and Astronauts. 

Ad Astra Per Aspera, A rough road leads to the stars.

- Apollo 1 memorial

The Fallen Astronaut

The first death to occur due to EDL system failure was Vladimir Komarov on 24 April 1967. He was returning to Earth during the Soyuz-1 mission, and the parachute failed to deploy. He, unfortunately, died on impact. During the deceleration phase, the drogue parachute deployed successfully, but the main parachute never deployed. At this moment, Cosmonaut Komarov activated the backup parachute. However, as the drogue did not separate from the Soyuz capsule, the two parachutes entangled and were rendered useless. The capsule hit the ground with 40 m/s or 140 km/h, killing Komarov.  It was only after impact that the retrorockets fired, setting the surroundings on fire. 

On the 29th of June 1971, the Soyuz 11 spacecraft separated from Salyut 1 and the crew began to prepare for re-entry.  After the separation of the habitation and service modules, the communication ended. The EDL system worked as expected bringing Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev back to earth. After the ground crew reached the capsule it was found that the three cosmonauts suffocated as the hatch between the habitation and return module was not airtight. Although the fatality occurred above the Karman line it is mentioned here as the separation of the modules is a part of the EDL sequence of Soyuz. 

Soyuz 1 memorial

The final Russian fatality is a bit strange as it occurred during the training of Soviet Air Force Cosmonaut Training Group 11. Sergei Vozovikov drowned in water during recovery training in the Black Sea on the 11 of July 1993.

FLIR of the Columbia during breakup

The crash of Space Shuttle Columbia on the first of  February 2003 led to the untimely demise of Rick D. Husband, William C. Mc Cool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. The Mission, STS-107, launched on the 16th of January 2003 and re-entered on the 1st of February. The orbiter was struck by foam from the external tank during launch, which caused a gaping hole in the wing. During re-entry, hot gas found its way through this hole to the internals of the orbiter.  At 13:59:32 UTC, this leads to an in-flight break up of the orbiter, killing the crew. 

The latest fatality due to EDL failure was Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise PF04 on the 31st of  October 2014. Micheal Alsbury passed away due to premature deployment of the air brake onboard the spacecraft. This was a unique EDL failure as one of the pilots (Peter Siebold) survived the crash by parachuting from 50,000 feet.

Spaceship two after the crash

V0.2 - 17-04-2020