Stranger Than Fiction: Wolves, Lightning and Cameras Present Greater Threats to Astronauts Than Asteroids
11.08.12 by BJSprecher
With many scientists theorizing that an asteroid is the most likely culprit behind the extinction of the dinosaurs and many doomsdayers anticipating an asteroid strike will wipe out the planet in just over two months as the Maya Calendar ends another 5,125-year-long cycle, you would think that the icy chunks of irregularly orbiting space debris streaking throughout our solar system would pose the greatest threat to spaceflight. However, while an asteroid smashing into a rocket or space station might make for a dramatic plot device in a movie, the dangers facing astronauts and cosmonauts are, in truth, much more mundane, though no less deadly.
The Strange Truth
Spaceflight is, by its very nature, a highly dangerous undertaking. Those who journey into space ride aboard what amounts to a gigantic bomb, and they are met in orbit with extreme temperatures, cosmic rays and solar flares. Not only that, but they must carry all of their own food, water and oxygen with them. It's impossible to know how many fatalities there have been since space exploration began because of the lack of full disclosure by the Soviet Union during the early days of its space program, but 18 astronauts and cosmonauts have lost their lives in space in the last two years alone.
Spaceflight missions are fraught with danger at nearly every stage of the operation, from launch to landing. The 1969 Apollo 12 rocket was struck by lightning twice as it left the earth, causing instrument failures that left the crew wondering whether they would be able to return home, while the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster claimed seven lives when it disintegrated shortly after launch. Once in space, even more problems can arise and there's no one to come to the rescue. In 1970, the crew of Apollo 13 spent several days dealing with failing systems and seemingly no way to get back down to Earth, and, more recently, astronauts aboard the International Space Station were stranded when the unmanned Russian Soyuz rocket that was supposed to retrieve them blew up shortly after takeoff.
Even if the launch and the space mission are successful, astronauts still face the challenge of returning to Earth. In the '60s, the Russian crew of the Voskhod flew off course upon re-entry, landing several hundreds of miles from their intended touchdown point. The cosmonauts had to spend the night in the woods of Siberia, and were forced to use pieces of the capsule to fend off ravenous wolves and bears. And, when the command module of the aforementioned Apollo 12 mission touched down, 16mm camera became dislodged and pinballed around the inside of the module, knocking astronaut Alan Bean unconscious when it struck him in the head.
In writer-director-producer Alfonso Cuarón's (Children of Men) new psychological thriller, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission and a veteran astronaut on his final mission who end up stranded in space after a comet destroys the shuttle while they are performing a routine spacewalk. The two must cope with dwindling supplies of oxygen and no way to communicate with mission control as they drift in the void tethered to one another. The $80 million-budgeted movie reportedly contains a spectacular 20-minute single shot opening scene, but, alas, no ravenous wolves.