Five Embarrassing Space Mistakes

Engineers, astrophysicists, and astronauts are at the pinnacle of scientific innovation, but even they screw up. Sometimes they make easy mistakes, other times things don’t go as planned, and occasionally they simply don’t think ahead.

1. First American in Space wets his Pants

In 1961 the U.S. government spent oodles of money to build a ship that could put a man in orbit, equipped with a capsule that could bring him back safely.

Kerbal Space Program

The United States cared more about its crew than other, less reputable space programs.

They went through countless flight-checks and mission protocols so that on the day of the launch there would be a solution for every possible problem.

Alan Shepard was to be the first American in space. After a breakfast of pancakes, orange juice, and coffee, he was suited up and strapped in for what turned out to be a long wait. We all know what orange juice, and especially coffee, can do to our bladders, but Alan Shepard was a grown man and an American hero. No one asked if he needed to take a bathroom break. Before he even launched, though, he made the same comment uttered by toddlers in car-seats around the world.

After more than three hours of lying on his back due to delays, with just minutes left until takeoff, Shepard told mission control he just couldn’t hold it anymore. “Man, I gotta pee,” he told Gordon Cooper, who was stationed at the nearby blockhouse.

This was one situation NASA hadn’t planned for. Shepard was in a suit full of electronics that could be shorted out by a stream of urine. But the scientists at NASA talked about it and figured it was, “probably safe” for him to just go ahead and pee in his suit.

So the first American in space wet his pants before launch, not because he was scared, but because of poor planning. The suit didn’t electrocute him, but I bet he developed a wicked rash.


To this day Astronauts are required to wear diapers.

2. Galileo Probe 

The Galileo probe was the first to orbit Jupiter and several of its moons. After nearly twenty years of work, the probe was launched. The engineers of the Galileo probe decided to use a deployable high-gain antennae (HGA) to help it fit into the space shuttle. However, when it came time for the HGA to deploy, nothing happened. Mission commands and information relays had to be communicated with the much inferior low gain antennae.

The project’s worst fears were realized. All efforts to fully deploy the antenna were unsuccessful. The HGA was virtually useless.

Hardware failure is the boogeyman of science.

Political and funding hurdles proved difficult for the Galileo team. They ended up moving the sensitive probe from California to Florida, back and forth, numerous times. Yet they still expected everything to work perfectly.

…Slips in capability and delivery of the planned shuttle necessitated several major redesigns…Ultimately, the spacecraft would make three transcontinental trips,

A short trip to a friend’s house can ruin an xbox, NASA should have known numerous trips across the country might break their probe.

Plus, they had to use a different type of fuel, which required a different flight plan, which required the instillation of a new heat shield.

baby moose

If you give a moose a liquid-fuel rocket booster…

Apparently the rocket scientists didn’t do any tests to see if the new hardware would get in the way of the probe’s originally intended functions.

[The new] booster was not capable of sending the spacecraft on a direct course to Jupiter, but by the clever use of gravity assists from Venus and from Earth, a viable mission could be flown, with a much longer flight time to Jupiter…The extended journey required design modifications, including adding several sun shields to protect the spacecraft when flying to Venus for its first gravity assist…Shortly after launch, the retaining rods were released, but the antenna was held in a closed configuration, protected under the sun shield

NASA logo

Oh, NASA. So clever, yet so dumb.

3. Astronaut hurts himself while exercising.

In 1995 NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency were trying to share the Mir Space Station. While onboard Mir, American astronaut Norman Thagard was bored.

Thagard faced his many challenges, he also met one problem that few had expected: He did not have enough meaningful work to do…

Astronauts are a lot like inmates. When they have nothing else to do, they exercise. Instead of using weights to train for prison-shanking contests, though, people in space are forced to use elastic straps. To train for space-shanking contests.

Norman Thagard was training with these straps when one of them slipped off his foot and snapped him in the eye, leaving him unable to see clearly for the rest of the mission.

“I was pretty sure for a while that I had done some serious damage to the eye,” Thagard said. Even small amounts of light caused him pain, and using the eye was “like looking at the world through gauze.”

Thagard fixed himself up and reported to Cosmonaut and flight engineer Gennady Strakelov. Upon hearing of the American’s accident, Strakelov said,

“Oh, yes. Those things are dangerous. That’s why I don’t use them.”

“Thanks, Gennady, for the heads-up on that one,” Thagard responded.

Sochi logo

That wasn’t the last time the Russians didn’t warn others of potential hazards.

4. Deep Impact fails to retrieve data.

The Deep Impact probe was planned to be the opposite of the movie: instead of comet crashing into Earth, something from Earth was sent to crash into a comet. Everything went according to plan.

Unfortunately, the folks at NASA forgot that making impact craters also makes a lot of dust.  The part of the probe still orbiting the comet was unable to take pictures of the crater, because of the dust created. On purpose.

The science team estimates the impact blasted a crater about 100 meters wide and up to 30 meters deep, unfortunately, the impact ejecta obscured the view so that the spacecraft was unable to image the final crater.

NASA ended up having to reroute a different probe, Stardust-NExT, to finish what Deep Impact started.

5. NOAA-19

The NOAA-19 satellite was the last in a long line of weather satellites. All of its ancestors worked perfectly, and NOAA-19 was destined to do the same. When it came time to move the completed satellite no one checked to make sure it was bolted down. NOAA-19 fell over and broke.

There have been satellites lost in space, those that have exploded on the runway, and then there’s this. During final servicing at a Lockheed-Martin facility in California, engineers failed to check if the satellite was bolted down before moving it, and accidentally knocked the multi-million dollar piece of equipment onto the ground, breaking a number of components.

It just goes to show, no matter how advanced your degree, or how smart you are, make sure expensive things are secure before you move them.

Alan Shepard

And  remember to go to the bathroom before you take a long trip.