Has Anyone Died in Space? Statistics of Space Deaths

Has anyone died in space

Today, we take crewed spaceflights almost for granted, but sixty years back, at the start of the Space Race, these missions were way more dangerous than they are now. Has anyone died in space during this time? Sadly, yes. On the upside, though — the statistics of space deaths are not that high. According to the United Nations and Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) definition, three people died beyond the space border — which, according to FAI, starts at 100 km altitude. According to NASA, spaceflight begins at 80 km already — and lowering the spaceflight altitude increases the number of mission deaths.

Besides, the early days of the race between the USSR and the USA saw several tragic deaths during mission preparation, and two shuttle crashes also increased the number of astronauts who died in space missions. But let’s discuss it from the beginning.

Has Anyone Died in Space Mission Preparation?

Two accidents, claiming the lives of three US astronauts and one Soviet cosmonaut, have happened even before the mission launch. Both times, the fire started in the astronaut training chamber, and people could not get out quickly enough. The first accident, on March 23, 1961, happened because of human error — Valentin Bondarenko, just a few days before his mission started, threw an alcohol-dipped cotton swab he used to wipe his skin, which fell on the stove. The fire spread instantly, killing Bondarenko.

Apollo 1 fire killed three NASA astronauts within 14 seconds after it started. This time, the accident was caused by a spark in electric wiring, which quickly set fire to a pressure changer and released poisonous combustion products. The crew, consisting of Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee, died on a launch site at the Kennedy Space Center on January 27, 1967, before the mission even got a chance to launch.

Death in Space Missions: Confirmed and Alleged

If we exclude accidents during pre-launch preparation, how many people have died in space? The Soviets lost four more astronauts during two Soyuz missions (1 and 11), and the NASA Shuttle disaster (Challenger Columbia) claimed the lives of 14 more people. Also, two pilots have crashed during suborbital test flights — even though the first accident that took place in 1967 after reaching an 81-km peak altitude does not qualify as a space mission death according to the UN and FAI.

Besides, in the 1960s, American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein and the Western press were writing about one more Soviet cosmonaut death that was allegedly left unreported by the USSR authorities. But, according to Orbital Today and other reputable sources, there is no way to confirm or deny this information, so we’ll assume it was sheer Cold War information war.

So, back to confirmed data — how many accidents have been in space? Excluding suborbital tests from Virgin Galactic and joint aeronautical experiments between NASA and the US Air Force leaves us with four significant tragedies — Soyuz and NASA Shuttles.

Soyuz 1

Soyuz 1 descent capsule crashed on April 23, 1967, killing the only cosmonaut onboard — Vladimir Komarov. The accident occurred due to the parachute system failure, after which the vehicle crashed to the ground at 50 m/s speed, killing the pilot instantly. This was the first death on a mission, but sadly, it would not be the last.

Soyuz 11

Another Soyuz tragedy occurred on June 30, 1971 — this time, killing three cosmonauts aboard. The mission was relatively successful — the crew members docked with Salyut, the first orbital station, and stayed there for 22 days (a record). However, upon descent, the cabin depressurized, and all crew members suffocated. You may wonder, what happens to astronauts’ bodies in space? They experience severe pain as they slowly suffocate, and their eardrums burst — the most unfortunate fate.


Challenger Shuttle crash on January 28, 1986, killed six professional NASA astronauts and one civilian teacher handpicked as part of NASA’s national program “Teacher in Space.” The tragedy occurred only 73 seconds after the launch and was witnessed by millions over a live broadcast.


Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003, marked an end to the Shuttle Era — even though officially, the program was discontinued only in 2011. The shuttle broke down during descent at 60 km altitude, and the crash killed all seven crew members instantly. No NASA shuttle flew again after this tragic accident. So, is no one buried in space? No, even though it is technically possible to launch one’s ashes on a rocket — starting from $3,000. As for the tragic Soyuz 11 mission, the first and only officially acknowledged deaths beyond the Karman line, the perished cosmonauts’ names are forever commemorated on the lunar plaque delivered in 1971 by Apollo 15 astronauts.

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