Last week's test of an Orion space capsule splashdown recovery got me thinking. Surely not every time someone comes down from space it's not going to go according to plan, right? It turns out, it definitely hasn't.
When attempting any new endeavor, humanity tends to use the time-tested method of trial-and-error. Trial-and-error is grand, in that it helps you figure out what works; the flip side is that it also helps you figure out what really doesn't work. The thing with outer space, though, is that what you find out that doesn't work so well can end up being pretty scary or, at the very least, pretty weird.
One of the easiest things to do about space, in theory, is to get a person up there. Get a person, stick them in a box, put it up on top of rocket, and light the candle. Easy enough. The real challenge is not only keeping them alive when they're up there, but getting them back. Mess up your re-entry just a little bit, and you end up either burned to a crisp, bounced off into space, or, at the very least, hundreds of miles of course.
It's no surprise, then, that we've been doing it weird ever since day one.
The Ejection of Vostok 1
Vostok 1 was humanity's very first spaceflight, sending Yuri Gagarin up on a single orbit around the Earth on April 12, 1961. That's slightly burnt-looking ball pictured above is his capsule, which let him circle the globe and brought him back home again to the Kazakh steppe. While it may look weird as it's sitting on dry land, that's not the strange part. In fact, to this day the Russian government brings its cosmonauts and other astronauts back to Earth from the International Space Station by having them parachute onto terra firma, as you can see in the video up top. It's a bit bumpier than doing a cannonball into the ocean, sure, but you don't need to pay for a giant aircraft carrier in the middle of the sea, so there's that.
No, the weird part is that when Vostok 1 went up into space, carried Yuri Gagarin up over Russia, down over the Pacific, and up the Atlantic over Africa and back to the Soviet Union again, and then landed back home, Yuri Gagarin wasn't actually in it. Well, he was in it for the "space" part of the journey, but not for the entire trip back down. That's because Soviet engineers hadn't exactly figured out how to make the craft survivable for when it actually hit the earth. Witnesses reported seeing the Vostok 1 not only hit the ground and bounce back up, but leaving a big hole where it smacked into the ground the first time. Ouch.
Gagarin was actually peacefully floating to the Earth a bit of a ways away, as he had been sitting on an ejection seat throughout his ride. When the capsule was over four miles above the ground his hatch blew open, and two seconds later he was thrown clear to parachute on his own. He came down in the middle of a field, to the surprise of everyone else involved:
“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don´t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
Yeah, if I'm just minding my own business, and a guy in a spacesuit falls out of the sky, and it's also 1961, I'd be pretty weirded out.
The Bears and Wolves of Voskhod 2
Alright, so by 1965 you'd think humanity would have this whole "landing thing" figured out. And it was figured out, to an extent, in that you didn't have to go for a bone-crushing ejection just to escape the specter of a bone-crushing splat as you hit the ground rapidly rising towards you. You just had to land in the right spot.
Voskhod 2 is notable for the first-ever spacewalk that took place in this mission, where an astronaut actually leaves their capsule to float around a bit and do other things, depending on the needs of the day. The cosmonaut who got to leave the craft, Alexey Leonov, had a bit of trouble getting back in, and had to depressurize his suit a bit just to get through the door. That all sounds a bit scary, I suppose, until they realized that with all the trouble they encountered it took them an extra 46 seconds to get themselves positioned for re-entry.
Three-quarters of a minute doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're zooming along at over 17,000 miles an hour things move quickly. Voskhod 2 landed over 200 miles away from its planned landing site, in the middle of nowhere in Siberia. The forest they landed in was full of bears and wolves at the peak of mating season, meaning they didn't exactly like two guys dropping in from the sky just to say priviet. Everything was all good, though, the two cosmonauts inside just had to sit tight in their capsule and wait for help to arrive, right?
Of course not "right." As soon as they hit the ground, explosive bolts blew open the hatch, making them a tasty, meaty delight for the hungry animals in the dead of Winter. And all they had was a pistol. Oh, and it was freezing, like -30 degrees Celsius. Oh, and their clothing was soaked because it got really hot up in space and they sweated through everything. So they had to get out, wring out their underwear, get back in, wait for help, and try not to freeze and/or get eaten in the process. No problem.
Help eventually found its way to the cosmonauts over a day later, but they still couldn't leave. The thick forest prevented helicopters from landing, so first everyone gathered around and chopped wood to build a fire and a goddamn log cabin. Then, the day after that, they finally got on skis and nordic-tracked back to a place where a helicopter actually could get them.
And all because they were delayed by 46 seconds.
The Time The Space Shuttle Landed In The Middle of the Goddamn Desert
STS-3 was NASA's third shuttle mission, taking place in 1982, and as such the team was still in testing mode. Only two astronauts were aboard this flight and as such there wasn't a whole lot of people to consult with on some of the specifics. That included where they wanted to land. The originally landing site was supposed to be Edwards Air Force Base, but that was flooded due to some rain. No problem, Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton would just land back from where they took off, at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Except they didn't feel like it.
Lousma and Fullerton chose to land instead at White Sands in New Mexico, which, and I know this is hard to believe based on its name, has a lot of sand. The guys had trained at White Sands, so there was a bit of nostalgia and whatnot. It wouldn't be too hard to land there, right? I mean, there was a runway (made out of sand) and NASA could get all its equipment there easy peasy. Just in 40 train car loads across 1,000 miles of the country.
Lousma and Fullerton also decided to test out the Space Shuttle's neat little autopilot feature. The only problem was that it wasn't exactly, how should I put this, "complete" yet. The Shuttle was known for flying like a brick, and the autopilot didn't help. It continuously opened and closed the speedbrakes on descent, like when your jerk of a friend decides to drive by using the accelerator and the brakes as on/off switches rather than how their supposed to be used. It hurts. This led to the Shuttle randomly speeding up and slowing down, which couldn't have been too comfortable. You can see the result of that in the video above, as the poor guy counting down to the nose-down touchdown goes "5...4...3...3...3..." Oops.
The Incredible Sinking Soviet Space Submarine
Soyuz 23 didn't land as far off course as Voskhod 2 did, but it still wasn't great. The two cosmonauts inside, Vyacheslav Zudov and Valery Rozhdestvensky landed in the middle of a blizzard. That's not so bad, until you consider that they actually didn't "land." This is one of the few examples of a Soviet splashdown, and it was entirely unintentional. The two cosmonauts actually hit the frozen Lake Tengiz. Oh, and they were over 5 miles from shore. Oh, and that "frozen" bit? It doesn't exactly hold true when your spaceship is falling pretty fast. Soyuz 23 promptly broke through the surface ice, and then it promptly sank when their parachute filled with water. Unlike Voskhod 2, their hatch didn't blow immediately, so they were fine, if a bit chilly. Which, was again fine, if anybody could find them. Eventually their rescuers found them 9 hours later, and the craft was rigged to floatation devices, which were rigged to helicopters.
I can't find any documentation, but I bet they had a cold after that.