Just in time for NASA’s call for astronaut applications comes a series that may have you reconsidering that secret childhood fantasy—not to mention a sobering reminder that spaceflight is a pretty dangerous business.
The Science Channel’s Secret Space Escapes, which begins November 10, interviews astronauts about terrifying accidents, close calls, and ingenious hacks that nearly claimed or saved their lives.
Recounting missions as recent as 2013, the series tells these stories from the viewpoints of the men and women who lived them, kept their cool, and relied on science, training, earthbound colleagues, and their wits to survive launches, space walks, landings, collisions, fires, and power outages during their missions.
“We wanted the stories told firsthand, because you hear the calm exchanges between the astronauts and NASA,” juxtaposed against the series’ embellishments of what the astronauts were really thinking, says Bernadette McDaid, Science Channel’s VP of production.
During one spacewalk, a malfunctioning cooling system valve doused Robert Curbeam in toxic ammonia flakes. He had to remain outside, zooming at 17,000 mph, 225 miles above the earth, and until the sun melted the contaminants and he could reenter the International Space Station (ISS).
“I didn’t know what was going on inside the spacecraft,“ said Curbeam during a press conference for the series. “My biggest thought was, If I made the mistake and they couldn’t activate the laboratory, I better enjoy this, because it might be my last spacewalk. You just sit there and trust that mission control will get you through.”
When a new ISS solar panel tore, Scott Parazynski had to venture out on a 90-foot arm to make improvised repairs on the panels carrying deathly-high levels of voltage.
“We have become very mission-focused,” added Parazynski at that same event. “Even though there are dangers about us, we know there’s a brilliant group of folks in mission control and around the country focused on getting the right answer to complete the task and get us back inside safely.”
In 1969, cosmonaut Boris Volynov barely survived a malfunctioning Soyuz 5 capsule fall to Earth. A 1988 Atlantis flight had shuttle commander Robert “Hoot’ Gibson and mission specialist Mike Mullane convinced they would die after heat shield damage exposed parts of the shuttle to reentry’s 5,000-degree heat.
In 1997, astronaut Mike Foale was aboard the Russian Mir space station when it was struck by a resupply vessel and sprang a leak, lost power, and spun out of control. Foale made an ad hoc calculation using the position of the stars to determine the speed and direction of the spin. He and cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliyev and Aleksandr “Sasha” Lazutkin used the rockets inside the attached Soyuz capsule to stop the roll, saving the ship and their lives.
Here, astronaut Jerry Linenger tells of saying good-bye to his wife and son in the midst of a fire aboard the Mir space station:
Meanwhile, more stories about ingenious NASA engineering hacks—including duct tape saving a lunar rover—can be found here.
And folks in Los Angeles who prefer to explore space from the comparative safety of Earth can check out the California Science Center’s new exhibit and film, Journey to Space 3D, exploring the past and future of human space travel. Narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart and directed by Mark Krenzien, the 45-minute film showcases NASA’s challenges to land astronauts on Mars. Journey to Space: The Exhibition uses interactive exhibits, games, and ISS footage to examine the hazards faced in space and engineering adaptations that help astronauts survive.