What happens when things go wrong in space? What about the things that you see up there that no one is really able to completely confirmed nor deny… Science fiction can sometimes get a real run its money when it comes to the true stories. Like the time Chris Hadfield used his thumb and a stopwatch to save his entire crew on his shuttle, as well as the entire Mir Space Station. This episode of Sci-5s we explore 5 Terrifying Space Stories from Astronauts will for once make you glad that you’re stuck here on Earth.

Take Off
NASA Photo / Tony Landis

5. Severe Tile Damage of Atlantis

In December 1988, NASA’s Atlantis shuttle had insulation from the right solid rocket booster fall out only 85 seconds in the launch. This damaged tiles on its starboard side. The heat-resistant tiles are part of a thermal protection system. They serve as the ship’s armor to divert super-heated plasma during reentry. The crew inspected the damage with a TV camera attached to the spacecraft’s robotic arm, and immediately grew worried. Shuttle commander Robert Gibson says he thought he was going to die during atmospheric reentry.

This is where it gets interesting. Due to the fact the mission was to deliver a top-secret satellite to space, the transmission of TV images to Mission Control were encrypted, and had low-resolution and speed. The crew repeatedly voiced their concerns as they had a much clearer view, although NASA would not break encryption to properly asses the damage.

Fortunately, the crew made it back to Earth safely, however once NASA could see the extreme nature of the damage, they realized their mistakes. One tile was completely missing, a total of 700 were damaged, and the orbiter’s thin aluminum skin was scorched in various sections. NASA assembled a panel to review the incident and made 10 recommendations, one saying the agency should conduct more thorough inspections and improve communication about damage to the thermal protection system.

Chris Hadfield

4. When Chris Hadfield’s speed sensors failed right before a high precision docking

On the astronaut Chris Hadfield’s first flight, he prevented what would have been a potentially deadly accident event with his thumb and a stop watch. 30 seconds before a high precision docking on the Russian Mir Space Station, Hadfield’s distance and speed sensors failed. The docking needed to be pretty precise considering the shuttle they were docking was a quarter-million pounds, and the target was no bigger than a coaster.

Hadfield had the job of relaying the speed and distance to the pilot so he could dock safely within the 2-minute window they had to safely pull off the procedure. They had to be travelling a 10th of a foot per second give or take 3/100ths of a second… of course 30 seconds before this was to go down, the sensors failed and Chris was left to what anyone docking a giant space shuttle that with small error could kill everyone on board would do in that instant… he eyeballed the distance with his thumb, and used a stopwatch as his timer. As he knew the dimension in consideration, he was able to make a pretty good educated guess that would land the shuttle hitting the target and within time. Hadfield said it took a few minutes before everyone relaxed and realized they were alive and no damage was done. Imagine that rush…

Apollo 10

3. The Strange Moon Music

Before man had ever stepped foot on the moon, the Apollo 10 mission took a loop around to the dark side. Already a pretty terrifying mission, the crew members on board were prepared to lose all contact with Earth for almost an hour, but what they didn’t expect… is well noise. In 2008 NASA declassified a conversation between the 1969 crew, where they discussed a strange “space music” like sound. According to the NASA documentation, the crew heard the music coming through their radios. Pilot Eugene Cernan said “That music even sounds outer-spacey, doesn’t it? You hear that? That whistling sound?” The others agreed, however upon discussion, they decided they would not talk about it to the public, and NASA then classified the information for 39 years.

The interesting part is that the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere, or a magnetic field, so no noise should be coming from it. NASA has replied to this and stated that it was the result of two of their own radio feeds, however some astronauts such as AL Worden don’t believe this theory. He says astronauts are heavily trained, and know the type of sounds to expect, therefore if they think something like this is out of the ordinary and something else was going on… then it probably was.

After about an hour, the noise suddenly stopped. The official story is that it was radio interference, but even if that was where the noise was coming, it’s still gotta be pretty creepy to be on the dark side of the moon without Earth communication, only to hear creepy space music leaking through your radio… but perhaps not as terrifying as number 2…

Luca Parmitano

2. When Luca Parmintano almost drown in his helmet

Flight engineer Luca Parmitano was working to repair some cables on the ISS during a spacewalk when he started to feel condensation pool in the back of his helmet. His helmet was filling with water, but of course he couldn’t take the helmet off while.. You know… in space. Houston terminated the mission an hour and a half into what was supposed to be six or seven hours of maintenance.

While Luca was moving back towards the airlock, the water had almost completely covered his visor, and he began to worry that he would lose audio contact. Luca realised to get over to the antennae on his route, he would have to move his body in a vertical position. As he turned upside down the sun set and the vision he had completely vanished, and to make things worse, the water was covering his nose. The upper part of his helmet was now full of water, and he has no sense of direction to get back to the airlock.

Fortunately he made it back, and once inside, the crew worked to dry him off. This occurred on his second spacewalk ever. While he did make it back safely, it was something he will never forget.


1. When the Mir space station sustained the worst fire ever by an orbiting spacecraft

Jerry Linenger was enjoying his extended stay on the Russian Mir space station, what at the time was the longest period of time any American astronaut had been sent into space for when the an extremely dangerous fire threatened the lives of everyone on board. During Jerry’s meal of dehydrated borscht, a tank of concentrated, combustible, oxygen-based chemicals caught fire, and caused an uncontrollable blaze. This was essentially a worst case scenario for the crew. The fire was releasing toxic substances in the air and there was a risk of rapid decompression if the flame burned a hole through the thin aluminium separating the inside from the vacuum of space.

While the station usually holds only three passengers at a time, they were in a crew turnover, so six astronauts were on board. Three of them were fighting the fire, while the other three were planning for an emergency escape. However, there was another problem, one of the two ships were blocked by the fire, so only three would be able to leave. Luckily tho, the team was able to put the fire out. They did have to wear oxygen masks for a while until their environment balanced out, but that was much better than the alternative.


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