How Many Space Shuttles Blew Up: 10 Historical Disasters

This article highlights how many space shuttles blew up and other impactful space shuttle disasters that shaped the course of human spaceflight.

From the chilling Challenger explosion to the disintegration of Columbia, these moments tested NASA’s resolve and forced the agency to rethink safety procedures.

Read on for a sobering look at disasters that became turning points.

1. Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion

space challenger exploded
Photo By Getty Images

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of all seven crew members. The disaster was caused by the failure of rubber O-ring seals in one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, which allowed pressurized hot gas to breach the adjacent external tank.

The Challenger explosion led NASA to suspend shuttle flights for nearly 3 years as it made safety improvements. This haunting disaster showed the risks astronauts accept in the name of exploration.

2. Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

space shuttle columbia disaster
Photo By Dr. Scott Lieberman / AP Images

On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, tragically killing all seven crew members. The accident was caused by damage sustained during launch when foam insulation broke off the external tank and struck the leading edge of the orbiter’s left wing.

The damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate the shuttle during re-entry, leading to loss of control and breakup of the vehicle. After suspending operations for over two years, NASA made modifications to prevent foam shedding and developed in-orbit inspection and repair techniques. The Columbia disaster was a sobering reminder of the extreme dangers faced by those who ride aboard space shuttles.

3. Apollo 1 Fire

apollo 1 fire
Photo By Wikimedia Commons

The Apollo 1 fire was a tragic accident that occurred during pre-flight testing on January 27, 1967. A flash fire erupted inside the command module during a launch rehearsal test, killing all three crew members – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The fire was likely caused by an electrical spark igniting the pure oxygen atmosphere inside the capsule.

The hatch also could not be opened quickly from the inside, preventing the astronauts’ escape. After an extensive investigation, NASA made major improvements to the command module’s design and safety features. The sacrifices of the Apollo 1 crew were critical in paving the way for the subsequent success of the Apollo program’s moon landings. Their bravery serves as an enduring reminder of the inherent dangers faced by all who participate in human space exploration.

4. Soyuz 1 Crash Landing

Funeral of Soviet cosmonaut Komarov, 1967
Photo By RIA Novosti / Photo Researchers Inc.

The next major tragedy struck the Soviet space program on April 24, 1967, with the crash of Soyuz 1. Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was launched on the first crewed flight of the new Soyuz spacecraft. Multiple system failures occurred, and when Komarov attempted reentry, the parachute tangled and failed to open properly causing his capsule to hit the ground at high speed. Tragically, Komarov was killed, making him the first human to die during a spaceflight.

The Soyuz 1 mission was plagued with political pressure, technical issues, and an unrealistic launch schedule that ultimately compromised safety. Komarov knew the risks but chose to fly anyway in an act of selfless courage. The catastrophic failure led to a major overhaul of the Soyuz design before crewed flights resumed. Komarov’s sacrifice advanced the Soviet space program and also served as a stark reminder of the need for exhaustive testing and safety measures in space travel.

5. Soyuz 11 Depressurization

soyuz 11 crew
Photo By Wikimedia Commons

The Soyuz spacecraft encountered another tragedy on June 30, 1971, with the depressurization and loss of Soyuz 11. Cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev were returning to Earth after successfully docking with the world’s first space station, Salyut 1. As their descent module prepared to reenter the atmosphere, a valve accidentally opened, causing the internal atmosphere to be lost into space.

By the time recovery crews opened the module, the cosmonauts had asphyxiated. The Soyuz 11 mission had appeared successful right up until the disastrous depressurization during descent. While a technical fault caused the accident, the real tragedy was the loss of three brave cosmonauts on the verge of completing a historic mission. The Soyuz underwent a redesign to avoid depressurization on future missions. Despite the heartbreak of losing comrades, the Soyuz 11 mishap steeled the resolve of the Soviet space program to continue advancing into the cosmos.

6. Space Shuttle Atlantis Fuel Tank Foam Loss

space shuttle atlantis
Photo By NASA / KSC

The Space Shuttle Atlantis experienced a major setback during the launch of STS-27 in 1988. As the shuttle ascended, a chunk of insulating foam broke off from the external fuel tank and struck the orbiter. The impact damaged critical thermal protection tiles on Atlantis’ underside, leaving the vehicle vulnerable to intense heating during re-entry. Despite the alarming foam strike, the STS-27 crew successfully deployed a classified Department of Defense satellite.

Upon returning to Earth, Atlantis endured some of the most severe heat damage ever sustained by a shuttle. Post-flight analysis revealed hundreds of damaged tiles, some completely missing. The alarming foam loss and thermal damage could have resulted in a catastrophic failure during re-entry. As a result, NASA worked to resolve the foam shedding issue prior to future flights. The STS-27 incident demonstrated the grave dangers foam debris poses to the shuttle’s delicate thermal protection system.

7. Space Shuttle Discovery Foam Debris Strike

space shuttle foam
Photo By Incompliance Mag

The dangers of foam loss were reinforced in 2003 when Space Shuttle Discovery suffered major damage from a foam strike during its climb to orbit. As the external tank propellant lines were pressurized, a large piece of insulating foam broke free and smashed into the leading edge of Discovery’s left wing. The debris strike created a major hole in the protective carbon panels along the wing’s front edge. After achieving orbit, the crew was able to photograph the alarming damage. Images revealed a gaping cavity in the wing’s thermal protection system.

The alarming discovery raised grave concerns about Discovery’s ability to endure the intense heat of re-entry. After much analysis and debate, NASA leadership cleared Discovery for return to Earth. The shuttle successfully landed despite the compromised wing. Post-flight inspections confirmed the debris strike had penetrated all the way through the wing’s protective layers. The alarming foam loss incident prompted NASA to redesign the external tank’s foam application process. The enhancements aimed to eliminate hazardous foam shedding on future missions.

8. Space Shuttle Endeavour Tile Damage

Space Shuttle Endeavour Tile Damage
Photo By Wikimedia Commons

The vulnerability of the shuttle’s thermal protection system was highlighted again in 2007 during Space Shuttle Endeavour’s mission to the International Space Station. As Endeavour approached the station, astronauts noticed worrisome damage on the ship’s underbelly. Upon closer inspection, a tile was missing and an adjacent thermal blanket showed concerning damage. The compromised area allowed dangerously hot gases to penetrate during re-entry. Fortunately, the breach did not cause critical overheating.

But the incident underscored the risks posed by even minor damage to the heat shield. It also showcased the ability of the shuttle’s advanced cameras to detect problems in orbit. Without this imagery, the damage could have gone unnoticed until it was too late. The unsettling event prompted NASA to strengthen protections and conduct more detailed pre-launch inspections. Despite dodging disaster, Endeavour reminded all that spaceflight remains an endeavor fraught with risk.

9. Progress M-34 Cargo Ship Crash

Progress M-34
Photo By NASA / Crew of STS-86

The hazards of space were reinforced again in 2011 when an unmanned Russian Progress cargo ship failed to reach the International Space Station. The Progress M-34 was delivering nearly 3 tons of food, fuel, and supplies to the orbiting laboratory. But shortly after launch, mission control lost all contact with the vessel. It was later confirmed that the craft had tumbled out of control and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. The loss of the Progress cargo ship was a blow to ISS operations.

It delayed future missions and required rationing supplies on board the station. However, thanks to contingency planning and alternate delivery methods, the mishap did not put the ISS crew in peril. The crash served as a stark reminder that successfully traveling to and from space remains extremely difficult. But the Progress failure also demonstrated the ability to recover from adversity. Despite the setback, crews continued their important research undeterred.

10. SpaceX CRS-7 Rocket Explosion

spacex space shuttle blew up
Photo By NASA Space Flight

On June 28, 2015, SpaceX suffered a major setback when its Falcon 9 rocket exploded just minutes after liftoff. The rocket was carrying a Dragon cargo capsule loaded with over 4,000 pounds of food and supplies destined for the International Space Station. The dramatic blast occurred due to a faulty strut holding down a helium pressure vessel. The failure caused the rocket to break apart mid-flight. While the cargo and rocket were destroyed, the innovatively designed Dragon capsule ejected from the booster and parachuted safely back to Earth.

Though disappointed, SpaceX looked to identify fixes for future missions. The company has since successfully launched many Falcon 9 rockets. The CRS-7 failure exemplified the fine line between success and failure in spaceflight. It also showed how diligent engineering can mitigate risks and allow rapid recovery from problems. This event demonstrated why NASA trusts private partners like SpaceX to resupply the International Space Station.


How many NASA space shuttles have exploded?

2 NASA space shuttles have exploded: Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

What were the 2 space shuttles that exploded?

The 2 space shuttles that exploded were Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

Were the bodies of Columbia astronauts recovered?

No, the bodies of the 7 astronauts aboard Columbia were not recovered after the explosion during re-entry in February 2003.


In summary, 2 of NASA’s space shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, blew up resulting in the deaths of all 14 astronauts aboard. The Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia disaster in 2003 were tragic events in the history of space exploration. Out of the 5 operational space shuttles developed by NASA, 2 met disastrous fates, underlining the inherent risks involved in space travel.

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