Space travel is hard. From building the rockets to braving the vacuum, surviving the radiation, and safely returning to terra firma, there are few things about it that don’t have a high potential to fail spectacularly.
And yet when everything goes as planned — like when Curiosity touches down on Mars, the James Webb Space Telescope launches, or a spaceship grabs a sample of a hard-to-reach asteroid — space travel can seem easy, if not miraculous. But despite the best efforts of humans, the natural entropy of the space environment and the persnickety nature of rockets and software code still occasionally prevail. One in 25 NASA rockets have failed historically. In 2023, we’re not doing much better. Engineering bloopers abound: Some 50 percent of Space X’s Starship rockets blew up (but, hey, 50 percent didn’t!); researchers kept contact with Voyager 2 for the better part of 46 years (until that dropped call), and only one asteroid retrieval failed to deliver thanks to a canister that was screwed on just a bit too tight.
This is what science is all about, folks. Without further ado, here are the top eight Space Fails of 2023:
8. The Euclid spacecraft made a cosmic doodle
The European Space Agency spent more than a decade developing the Euclid mission before it launched in July. A space telescope capable of making fine measurements of the shapes of galaxies up to 10 billion light years away and across a third of the sky, Euclid will serve as a window into the dark universe, dark matter, and dark energy. Invisible to any direct observation, Euclid will search for the gravitational influence of dark matter and dark energy on the shapes of galaxies and of space itself.
But while commissioning Euclid’s instruments, they ran into a problem: The Fine Guidance Sensor, designed to hold Euclid’s Visible Instrument on target when viewing a star field, wasn’t working properly. This caused the instrument to wobble while taking an image in October, resulting in an image of a star field with a bright, looping, lasso-like trail, the astrophotography equivalent of painting tracers for a camera with a sparkler. Only in this case, the camera was moving, and the sparkler was a distant sun. No stars or telescopes were harmed due to the failure, and a software update appears to have fixed the problem.
7. NASA is still unable to open the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample container
Imagine spending $1.16 billion on a jar of pasta sauce and then being unable to open the lid. It’s an absurd scenario, but then, that’s probably the only way to describe the frustration NASA’s science team must be feeling at the moment. The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer, OSIRIS-REx, was launched in 2016 with the expressed goal of rendezvousing with the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, grabbing a sample of the space rock, and bringing it back to Earth. It was a fantastically complex mission pulled off with precision, right down to the coordinated retrieval of the sample-containing capsule on September 24 after it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and floated onto the Utah desert.
But once they got the sample return capsule back to Johnson Space Center and carefully placed it in a sealed box filled with a neutral nitrogen atmosphere, they hit a snag: two of the 35 fasteners sealing the capsule shut couldn’t be removed. And unlike a jar of marinara, they can’t just run it under some hot water, tap it on the counter, and twist it really hard with one of those rubber jar openers. NASA is currently working to develop entirely new tools to remove the obstinate fasteners. But at least in the meantime, they have plenty of Bennu material to work with — a surplus of the material coalesced on the outside of the capsule, more material, in fact, than the mission originally hoped to extract from Bennu altogether.
6. A private space tug spun out of control after a recent SpaceX launch
Sometimes a space mission fails because a bolt won’t come out or an O-ring deteriorates. But sometimes, it fails because even mission-critical software can be buggy. That’s what happened after the June 12 launch of the Orbiter SN3, designed by the company Launcher to act as an orbital tugboat that could maneuver smaller satellites into their operational orbits. After successfully reaching orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the SN3 began spinning uncontrollably, forcing Launcher to prematurely deploy its payloads. One of those was Otter Pup, a spacecraft built by Starfish Space to service satellites in orbit. Starfish had hoped to demonstrate an on-orbit Rendezvous between Otter Pup and a satellite, but the spacecraft was also set to spinning by the SN3 failure, and in November, Starfish Space abandoned plans to attempt the mission. Launcher did apologize, at least.
5. Two astronauts lost a tool bag in space
Anyone who has worked on their car or tried to fix a leaky sink has experienced that moment where they can’t find that wrench or screwdriver they were just using a minute ago. They put it down somewhere, but where is the question. It turns out astronauts are not immune to the syndrome, but of course, it gets much worse in an environment where things can actually float away when you’re not looking.
On November 1, NASA astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara spent more than six hours on a spacewalk to perform some maintenance on the International Space Station exterior, and as a NASA update put it, “during the activity, one tool bag was inadvertently lost.”
4. Virgin Orbit blamed its launch failure on upper-stage anomaly, filed for bankruptcy
Virgin Orbit founder Richard Branson was one of the first billionaires to hop on the commercial space tourism bus when he founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, and the first billionaire to actually ride to space aboard his company’s spacecraft in July 2021. But he was late to the small satellite space launch game. Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic in 2017 with the intention of providing launch services for small payloads using a rocket that would be carried aloft by an aircraft, dropped, and then launched toward the heavens — a possible shortcut to reusability without having to engineer the sorts of self-recovering first stage rocket boosters SpaceX developed for it’s Falcon 9 rockets.
Instead, it was a shortcut to failure.
After a Virgin Orbit rocket failed to reach orbit on January 9 due to an engine shutting down, the company pitched into a financial nosedive. By March, the company had laid off 675 people and by April, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was finalized in May, and what was left of the company was sold off for a fraction of its initial value.
3. Voyager 2’s dropped call
It’s the second longest distance call you can make, and NASA almost hung up by accident. On July 21, the operators of the Voyager 2 space probe at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory accidentally sent a message that commanded the spacecraft to tilt its antenna two degrees away from Earth. Given that the spacecraft is now more than 12.3 billion miles away on a trajectory toward interstellar space, that meant Voyager wasn’t listening for NASA in the right part of the sky anymore. Was that it for the famous spacecraft launched 46 years ago in 1977? The probe that brought us our first close-up images of the ice giant planets Neptune and Uranus? The second further human emissary to the Cosmos, trailing only its twin spacecraft Voyager 1? On August 4, NASA announced they had been able to get Voyager 2’s attention with the equivalent of an interstellar “shout” using the radio antenna dishes making up the space agency’s Deep Space Network. Barring any other unexpected dropped calls, Voyager 2 will keep sending data home from outside our Solar System until 2035.
2. Luna-25 — Russia’s glorious return to the Moon that wasn’t
On August 20, the Russian space agency Roscosmos’s hopes for a triumphant return “ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the surface of the Moon.” The Luna-25 lander launched on Aug. 10, but crash landed near the lunar south pole after a failed orbital maneuver, a blow to both the Russian space program and national pride at a time when the nation has become a pariah over its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Initially dubbed Luna-Glob, it was renamed Luna-25 in the tradition of the Soviet era Luna probes, which included the first soft landing on the Moon by Luna-9 in 1966. But it ultimately had more in common with the July 3, 1969 explosion of the Soviet N-1 rocket on the launchpad — the launch vehicle was meant to carry a Soviet crew to the Moon, and the USSR quietly abandoned the project following the US Apollo 11 mission later that month. Adding a historical echo to the Luna-25 failure, Russia was again surpassed by a foreign rival: India successfully landed its Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft near the lunar south pole on August 23.
1. SpaceX's Starship maintained a 100 percent explosion rate
On November 18, the second attempt at an uncrewed test flight of Starship and the Super Heavy Booster ended in a fiery explosion in the skies over Texas. The Super Heavy Booster, the launch vehicle’s main rocket stage, exploded shortly after it separated from the Starship spacecraft. The investigation is still ongoing, but SpaceX believes Starship exploded not long afterward, a self-destructive act by the spacecraft’s flight termination system, which blows the rocket up if it veers off course.
Not an ideal second outing for the world’s largest and most powerful rocket, which Musk hopes will take humans to Mars and a variant of which NASA hopes will land its astronauts on the Moon in 2025. But Starship did technically make it to space this time, flying for about eight minutes before blowing up — the first orbital Starship test flight in April ended in flames just moments after launch.