Deaths associated with US space programs

The following events list fatal events involving US space programs, missions, or flights associated with NASA, the US Department of Defense, other organizations, or private individuals. Each event is related to a space flight, a space program related test or training event, or involved an active duty astronaut or astronaut trainee in a program sponsored by the US government. Also included would be fatalities associated with corporate or private space travel efforts that are based in the US. Where appropriate, previous space mission experience is included.

Traditionally, terms such as astronaut and cosmonaut have been used to describe someone who is part of some government sponsored space program, or who is on a vehicle that is traveling or attempting to travel into space. will use those terms, where appropriate, depending on the context of the event, and may use other terms if additional clarity is needed.

Unless stated otherwise, all those listed below were NASA astronauts or were crew members on a NASA mission

  1. 31 October 1964 - Theodore Freeman was killed in the crash of a T-38 at Ellington AFB near Houston. The aircraft crashed after it was struck by a snow goose. The impact caused pieces of the canopy to enter both engines. He ejected, but was too low for his parachute to deploy completely.
  2. 28 February 1966 - Charles Bassett and Elliot See, who were the prime crew for Gemini 9, were killed in the crash of a T-38 in St. Louis, MO.
  3. 27 January 1967; Apollo 1 - Astronauts Roger Chaffee, Virgil Grissom (Mercury 4 and Gemini 3), and Edward White (Gemini 4) were killed at Cape Kennedy during a training exercise for the Apollo 1 mission. The crew died as a result of a fire within the spacecraft cabin.
  4. 6 June 1967 - Edward Givens was killed in an automobile accident near Houston, TX.
  5. 5 October 1967 - Clifton Williams was killed in the crash of a T-38 near Tallahassee, FL.
  6. 15 November 1967 X-15 - Michael J. Adams was killed after the vehicle departed from controlled flight and experienced an inflight breakup. Adams, who was also a USAF astronaut candidate for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, was posthumously awarded the USAF Astronaut Badge because the accident flight exceeded 50 miles (80 km) in altitude.

    Six other X-15 pilots besides Adams qualified for the Astronaut Badge for reaching altitudes above 50 miles. One X-15 pilot, Joe Walker flew higher than 100 km in the X-15 on two occasions in 1963, making him the first person to fly into space twice (an altitude of 100 km, also known as the Karman line, is the internationally recognized boundary of space). The X-15 program was jointly managed by NASA and USAF.
  7. 8 December 1967 - Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. was killed in the crash of F-104 Starfighter at Edwards AFB, CA. He was killed in a training flight where he was acting as an instructor pilot where the aircraft was simulating a steep glide technique of the type that was later used for the Space Shuttle. At the time of his death, he was a USAF astronaut candidate in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, which had planned to use small space stations as reconnaissance platforms. That program was cancelled in 1969, and seven members of the MOL program eventually flew on the Space Shuttle.
  8. 28 January 1986; Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51L): Cold launch temperatures contributed to a failure of O-rings on one of the solid rocket motors. As a result of this failure, hot exhaust gases escaped out of the side of the solid rocket motor that in turn led to a major structural failure of the launch vehicle about 73 seconds after liftoff. All seven crew members were killed. The crew members were:
    - Gregory Jarvis,
    - Christa McAuliffe ,
    - Ronald McNair (STS 41-B),
    - Ellison Onizuka (STS 51-C),
    - Judith Resnik (STS 41-D),
    - Francis Scobee (STS 41-C), and
    - Michael Smith.

    - NASA Information on the Challenger Accident
    - Report on cause of death of crew
    - NASA audio from the Challenger launch
    - President Ronald Reagan's Challenger speech
    - Rogers Commission accident report

  9. 24 May 1986 - Stephen Thorne was killed when the Pitts Special aircraft in which he was riding crashed in Santa Fe, TX. His flight was unrelated to any NASA project.
  10. 17 June 1989 - S. David Griggs (STS 51-D) was killed in a vintage WWII aircraft while practicing for an air show in Earle, AR. His flight was unrelated to any NASA project.
  11. 5 April 1991 - Sonny Carter (STS 33) was killed in an airliner crash involving an Atlantic Southeast Airlines Brasilia aircraft. The crash occurred while Carter was traveling on NASA business.
  12. 22 May 2001 - Patricia Robertson and her flight instructor were killed as a result of injuries sustained in a plane crash. She was on a training flight that was not related to any NASA project.
  13. 1 February 2003; Space Shuttle Columbia ( STS-107), over northeast Texas: Columbia was in the re-entry phase of flight after a 16-day mission and its intended destination was the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Communications with the shuttle were lost at about 9 a.m. local time. At the time of the most catastrophic phase of the breakup, the spacecraft was at an altitude of about 203,000 feet (approx. 39 mi. or 63 km) and was traveling at about Mach 18 (roughly 12,500 mph or 20,000 kph).

    While most of the debris landed in northeast Texas and western Louisiana, especially the area around the town of Nacagdoches (Knack-a-doe-chess), the breakup very likely began further west, possibly before the spacecraft passed over California. All seven astronauts on board the spacecraft were killed. The crew members were:
    - Michael Anderson (STS-89),
    - David Brown,
    - Kalpana Chawla (STS-87),
    - Laurel Clark,
    - Rick Husband (STS-96),
    - William McCool, and
    - Ilan Ramon.

    - Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report

  14. 31 October 2014; SpaceShipTwo; near Cantil, CA - Michael Alsbury, a civilian test pilot for the Scaled Composites company, was killed during a flight test of the SpaceShipTwo near Mojave, CA. The spacecraft, which was being developed for the Virgin Galactic company for use in commercial suborbital space flights, was on a test flight to evaluate the performance of its rocket engine.

    Shortly after SpaceShipTwo was launched from its carrier aircraft, an apparent early deployment of a speed control system led to an inflight breakup. The other crew member, Peter Siebold, was able to parachute to safety

    Siebold is the second person to survive a mishap that resulted in the loss of a space vehicle, with the first being astronaut Virgil (Gus) Grissom who survived the sinking of his Mercury 4 capsule. Siebold is also the first person to survive a fatal space vehicle mishap.

Related resources
Space Shuttle mishap risk
Space vehicle mishaps
Fatal events involving NASA astronauts
Other space flight accidents and incidents

Deaths associated with US space programs -- Revised: 4 January 2019