Disaster Strikes!: The Most Dangerous Space Missions of All Time

Disaster Strikes!: The Most Dangerous Space Missions of All Time

by Jeffrey Kluger


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Twelve thrilling and terrifying space-mission failures, told by the bestselling author of Apollo 13!

There are so many amazing, daring, and exciting missions to outer space that have succeeded. But for every success, there are mistakes, surprises, and flat-out failures that happen along the way. In this collection, bestselling author and award-winning journalist Jeffrey Kluger recounts twelve such disasters, telling the stories of the astronauts and the cosmonauts, the trials and the errors, the missions and the misses.

With stories of missions run by both Americans and Russians during the height of the space race, complete with photos of the people and machines behind them, this book delves into the mishaps and the tragedies, small and large, that led humankind to the moon and beyond.

Praise for Disaster Strikes!:

• "A thrill ride punctuated with spectacular failures—but also spectacular successes." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

• "The [is] text versatile, efficiently functioning as a collection of short reads or a balanced, book-length narrative . . . Always fascinating, at times unsettling, and highly recommended for elementary and middle school collections." —SLJ, starred review

"Each compelling episode is crafted as a self-standing adventure, with an opening hook and a satisfying close, making this an excellent source for readalouds for middle-school classes as well as a pleasure for independent readers." —BCCB

"Kluger manages to combine suspenseful storytelling with scientific writing, showcasing the successes of the programs alongside the failures that ended in death or near misses for astronauts. Even students who claim that they don’t like to read will find these 'you-are-there' moments totally engaging." —SLC

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984812759
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 296,684
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.80(d)
Lexile: NC1190L (what's this?)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Jeffrey Kluger is the author of several books, including To the Moon!, Apollo 8, Apollo 13 (originally published as Lost Moon), and The Sibling Effect. As a science editor and senior writer for TIME for more than two decades, he has written over forty cover stories for the magazine. He lives in New York City. Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffreykluger.

Read an Excerpt


Traveling in space might be the most thrilling thing a human being can do—unless, of course, it turns out to be the most horrifying. Just as often, it can wind up being both.

There has never been any form of exploration or travel that is entirely safe. Danger and even death lurk in the crack-up of a car, in the crash of an airplane, in the slow-motion disaster of a sinking ship. Climb a mountain, paddle along a river, merely hike a trail in an unfamiliar wilderness and you expose yourself to at least some kind of risk.

Space is different, though, because space is a place we were not meant to be. Even when you’re miles above the ground in a million-pound airplane hurtling along at 500 miles per hour, you’re still within the skin of the atmosphere, still contained by the bio-dome of the world, where there is air and water and warmth and life. In space, all that’s missing. It’s a place of hard vacuum, of killing cold, of blistering radiation. It’s a place that can’t be reached at all without giant machines that carry millions of pounds of explosive fuel and are able to reach speeds in the tens of thousands of miles per hour.

That’s not easy. That’s not safe. And that can cost lives.

Since 1961, when Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, became the first human being in space, orbiting the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft, more than 500 people have followed him aloft on more than 300 different missions. Nine of those missions flew to the moon, carrying twenty-four different Americans, twelve of whom walked on the lunar surface.

Every single one of those astronauts or cosmonauts—or taikonauts, too, now that China has begun its own human space program—has gone aloft knowing the risks involved. But all of them have gone aloft mindful of the singular splendor of the journey, too.

It’s not just the weightlessness—the sudden ability to fly, after a lifetime spent as an earthbound creature—though that’s a lot of fun. And it’s not just the view—the sight of the Earth far below and the vast vault of space above, the stars brilliant, white and strangely untwinkling, since there is no intervening atmosphere to distort the view.

It’s the sense of doing something improbable, of touching something untouchable, of being a pioneer. We think nothing of spending twelve hours in an airplane traveling 7,000 miles between New York and Beijing, but we recall in admiration and wonder the twelve-second, 120-foot powered flight that Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved on December 17, 1903, because Orville and Wilbur Wright went first. One day we may all get to take vacation trips to the moon, but they will mean nothing compared to the mere eighty-eight minutes Gagarin spent aloft on his single orbit of the Earth.

It’s that sense of going first, of walking point for the whole human species, that drives the men and women who take the risk of flying in space. I once asked Pete Conrad, the com-mander of Apollo 12 and the third person to walk on the moon, if he was at least a little anxious the entire time he was on the lunar surface, aware that if the engine of his lunar module didn’t fire as it was supposed to and get him back into space, he’d be marooned forever. “Nah,” he answered. “I was a happy guy on the moon.”

I once similarly asked Jim Lovell, who went to space four times, including two trips to the moon, on Apollo 8 and Apollo 13, if on the last night he was home before all of those trips, he didn’t look around his living room and think, Wow, if something goes wrong, I’ll never see this house again. His answer: “No. If you thought that way, you wouldn’t go.”

So the men and women who go to space don’t think that way—or if they do, they learn ways to shake off those thoughts and to press on with their mission. That, of course, doesn’t mean things won’t go wrong. That doesn’t mean the explorers won’t face danger. And that doesn’t mean that the risk doesn’t exist that they will indeed never see their homes again.

There have been many harrowing moments in the long history of human space flight, especially in the earliest years, when the United States and the Soviet Union—the former Russian empire—were competing to be the first nation to put a human being on the moon. The two countries were the world’s greatest superpowers and were also bitter rivals. Both were also in possession of thousands of fearsome nuclear weapons, which made the stakes of their rivalry potentially deadly.

The race to the moon was a peaceful way for that com-petition to play out, but it was still a dangerous game to play. The rushing sometimes made both countries reckless—cutting corners, breaking rules that good engineers and flight planners normally wouldn’t break—and they sometimes paid a terrible price for that. Even when the space race was won, however, even in the modern era, when traveling to Earth orbit has come to seem routine, the dangers remain. Space doesn’t change just because we think we’re familiar with it, that we’ve gotten good at visiting it. And the dangers that lurk there don’t change, either.

There is no way of saying with certainty what the scariest, most dangerous, most heart-stopping missions have been out of the 300-plus that have been flown in the past six decades. But the dozen missions whose stories are told in these chapters are awfully good candidates. There will be many more human space flights to come—including ones that may take us back to the moon and eventually to Mars. And there may be other emergencies and tragedies to rival these twelve.

Danger is an unavoidable part of exploration. But so is adventure and so is excitement and so is the joy of discovery. It’s the reason that, even when disaster strikes, we’ll keep on exploring all the same.

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