The new era of space exploration has officially started, private companies sell suborbital flight tickets, NASA is building a base on the Moon, and billionaire entrepreneurs are thinking about building colonies on other planets. But the early 20th-century missions were more hazardous than today’s tourist flights. Did you know how many are there who have gone to space and never come back?
If not, then here you will be surprised by the answer. So, 18 astronauts in a total of four missions did not survive the trip.
But has anyone disappeared in space, as in literally lost? Fortunately, not all people who have ever been on a mission are accounted for. There have been a total of three deaths above the official space border, as well as a series of other fatalities that happened closer to the ground. Each time, the bodies were recovered.
Some myths about mission disappearances circulated in the 1960s, and a few incidents endangered the astronauts’ safe return. But let’s start from the beginning.
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How Many Have Been Lost in Space?
Four Soviet cosmonauts became victims of space exploration. In 1967, during the Soyuz 1 mission, the parachute system of the module failed, and the vehicle crashed to the ground at 50 m/s second, killing the only person onboard, Vladimir Komarov. Komarov became the first person who died on a mission, but sadly, he would not be the last.
In 1971, another Soyuz mission ended in tragedy. During atmosphere re-entry, the Soyuz 11 descent module depressurized because of an air leak, and all three crew members died before they could reach our planet’s atmosphere. Until today, cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsaev, and Vladislav Volkov are the only people who died beyond the space border.
Two NASA’s shuttle disasters, Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), broke down in the air. Both times, a full crew complement of seven people died upon impact with the ground. But here, the official list of mission casualties ends. And legends begin…
Have Any Astronauts Been Lost in Space? Facts and Legends
The Cold War between the USA and the USSR gave rise to several myths stemming from mutual prejudice and disinformation. On April 10, 1961, just two days before Yuri Gagarin’s first-ever spaceflight, a Western Communist paper, the Daily Worker, published an article about Vladimir Ilyushin — allegedly the real first person in space.
According to this broadly-transmitted rumor, the spacecraft crashed, and the USSR tried to cover it up by reporting a car crash. Vladimir Ilyushin was, indeed, part of the program, but there is no other evidence to substantiate the claim.
A very similar story was initiated by an American science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, who claimed to have personally heard stories about another pilot, Gennady Zavodovsky, killed in the Vostok-1 spacecraft in May 1960. Orbital Today explains that Zavodovsky, too, was a real person, and he would eventually join the Cosmonaut Corps, but he was not part of the program in 1960.
Gagarin’s death in a plane crash in 1968 also caused a series of conspiracy theories. Allegedly, he went on a secret mission and disappeared into space. Well, who knows — if we take MIB movies as a credible source of information, maybe Elvis went home, too.
Astronauts Lost in Space. NASA: A Close Apollo 13 Call
NASA never actually lost anyone in the open cosmos, but Apollo 13 was an exceptionally unlucky mission that got close to a tragedy. One of the oxygen tanks exploded 47 hours into the flight. The crew and the ground station had to figure out the best ways to quickly return to Earth before the oxygen supply ran out completely.
And they succeeded even though, Houston, they did have a problem! And while the crew could not accomplish its mission goals, they all returned home safe and sound.
ISS Collision with Space Junk: Who has been stuck in space?
The last unpleasant incident occurred in December 2022 — one of the ISS capsules gave a leak after a collision with a piece of space debris. At the time, one NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts, Frank Rubio, Dmitry Petelin, and Sergey Prokopyev, were onboard the station.
Due to a series of additional leaks and return module malfunctions, the three spacemen had to stay almost 200 additional days on orbital watch. Their return, scheduled for March 2023, eventually happened in September 2023.
But in all fairness, the delayed ISS crew cannot qualify as astronauts lost in space forever — they were not even close to getting stranded or dying on a mission like the Apollo 13 crew. The ISS team was in constant contact with their ground stations; they had enough food, water, and oxygen supplies. So, it was a setback, not a disaster.
The bottom line is that no person in outer space has been lost or stranded so far. And we do hope it will stay this way as more astronauts go on new missions. There is a good reason to believe the casualty rate will be low. After all, safety systems and protocols have truly evolved since the 1960s.
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