Vladimir Komarov: The Cosmonaut Who Fell From Space

Nov 9, 2021 2 comments

The year 1967 held special significance for Soviet Union—it was the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, as well as the 10th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, wanted to celebrate this historic triumph by staging another historic accomplishment—a spectacular rendezvous between two Soviet spaceships in space.

Vladimir Komarov

The plan of the mission, named Soyuz 1, was to launch a capsule with a cosmonaut on board. The next day, a second vehicle would take off, Soyuz 2, with three more crewmen aboard. The two Soyuz vehicles would meet and dock, following which the first cosmonaut would climb into the docked vehicle, exchange his place with a colleague, and then come home in the second ship. The Soyuz did not yet include an airtight docking tunnel, so the swapping of crewmen between the capsules would have to be done externally via a spacewalk.

Vladimir Komarov was chosen to fly the Soyuz 1 mission. An awardee of the title “Hero of the Soviet Union” which he received after his first spaceflight in October 1964, Vladimir Komarov was perhaps the most respected cosmonaut after Yuri Gagarin, who was to be his backup for Soyuz 1. Both Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin were close friends. They socialized, hunted and drank together.

The Brezhnev administration wanted the docking to take place on or around May Day. They put immense pressure on the Soyuz development team to get the two Soyuz ready on time for the expected launch. But the Soyuz vehicle was far from being done. In fact, it was riddled with exactly 203 structural problems that made this machine unworthy of space travel. But who would tell Leonid Brezhnev?

Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov.

Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov.

“Some launches were made almost exclusively for propaganda purposes,” confessed Victor Yevsikov, an engineer on the Soyuz development team who helped design the heat-shield. “The management of the OKB-1 Design Bureau knew that the Soyuz vehicle had not been completely debugged, and more time was needed to make it operational, but the Communist Party ordered the launch, despite the fact that four preliminary unmanned tests had revealed faults.”

Yuri Gagarin, who was closely involved with the technicians, assessed the craft and produced a formal ten-page document in which all the problems were outlined in detail. He entrusted this document to his KGB friend Venyamin Russayev, who tried to pass the memo up the chain of command. But everyone he approached shirked away. In the Soviet society, bad news always reflected badly on the messenger, and nobody wanted to face the wrath of Leonid Brezhnev.

Russayev was directed by one of his seniors to Georgi Tsinev, a close personal friend of Leonid Brezhnev. If anyone could deliver an important message straight into the hands of the First Secretary, it was Tsinev. Unfortunately, Tsinev decided that such an explosive document could disrupt his relationship with Brezhnev and jeopardize his own rise within the KGB. Tsinev destroyed the memo, and everyone who had seen or handled it was fired or demoted. Russayev was stripped of any responsibility for space affairs, and transferred to an insignificant staff training department outside Moscow.

Vladimir Komarov

Vladimir Komarov

Later, Komarov met with Russayev, and said, “I'm not going to make it back from this flight.” When Russayev asked why didn’t Komarov refuse the fly the mission, Komarov replied: “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the back-up pilot instead. That’s Yura, and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.” Komarov then burst into tears.

On the morning of the launch, April 23, 1967, journalist Yaroslav Golovanov reported that Gagarin showed up at the launch site and demanded to be put into a spacesuit. “It was already clear that Komarov was perfectly fit to fly, and there were only three or four hours remaining until lift-off time, but he suddenly burst out and started demanding this and that. It was a sudden caprice,” Golovanov reported. Some believe that either Gagarin was trying to muscle onto the flight to save his friend, or trying to disrupt the preparations somehow, but without any clear plan of action.

The Soyuz lifted off with Komarov on board. As soon as he reached orbit, the failures begun. One of the solar-power vanes refused to deploy and his guidance computers ran short of power. Ground controllers worked on Komarov’s power deficit throughout the night. By next day, when Komarov’s problems had not been resolved, launch of the second Soyuz was cancelled and the entire mission was terminated. Now they had to bring Komarov back. Without assistance from the computers, however, navigation proved difficult and Komarov had great difficulty lining up his capsule for re-entry. “‘This devil ship! Nothing I lay my hands on works properly,” he complained.

The US National Security Agency had a facility at an Air Force base near Istanbul, from where they were listening to communications between Komarov and the ground control. According to an account by a former NSA analyst named Perry Fellwock, Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin called Komarov on a video phone:

They had a video-phone conversation, and Kosygin was crying. He told him he was a hero . . . The guy’s wife got on too, and they talked for a while. He told her how to handle their affairs, and what to do with the kids. It was pretty awful. Towards the last few minutes, he was falling apart . . . The strange thing is, we were all pretty bummed-out by the whole thing. In a lot of ways, having the sort of job we did humanizes the Russians. You study them so much, and listen to them for so many hours, that pretty soon you come to know them better than your own people.

As the capsule began its descent, the parachute failed to open and Komarov plunged to his death, and as he did, the American intelligence picked up his cries of rage as he cursed the people who put him inside a botched spaceship.

The space capsule crashed somewhere near Orsk in Orenburg Oblast. It was flattened and burst into flames. All that remained of Komarov's body was an irregular lump of cauterized flesh and bones, about two feet long.

Vladimir Komarov

Vladimir Komarov's remains in an open casket.

In an obituary published in Pravda, Komarov's fellow cosmonauts wrote:

For the forerunners it is always more difficult. They tread the unknown paths and these paths are not straight, they have sharp turns, surprises and dangers. But anyone who takes the pathway into orbit never wants to leave it. And no matter what difficulties or obstacles there are, they are never strong enough to deflect such a man from his chosen path. While his heart beats in his chest, a cosmonaut will always continue to challenge the universe. Vladimir Komarov was one of the first on this treacherous path.

Komarov’s death left Gagarin profoundly depressed for his failure to talk properly to Brezhnev, and save his friend’s life. The episode also left him immensely bitter and angry. “I’ll get through to him [Brezhnev] somehow, and if I ever find out he knew about the situation and still let everything happen, then I know exactly what I’m going to do,” Gagarin told Russayev. 

“I don’t know exactly what Yuri had in mind. Maybe a good punch in the face,” Russayev said.

Rumor has it that Gagarin eventually caught up with Brezhnev and threw a drink in his face.

Vladimir Komarov

Valentina Komarov, the widow of Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, is consoled by her friends during his official funeral, held in Moscow's Red Square on April 26, 1967.

References:
# Robert Krulwich, “Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth 'Crying In Rage'”, NPR
# Jamie Doran, Piers Bizony, “Starman: The Truth Behind The Legend Of Yuri Gagarin”

Comments

  1. There's a story that the reasons the parachutes failed was that there were loaded into the canisters before the capsule was placed in an oven to set a resin used in the heat shield. They should have been loaded after because the heat of the oven melted parts of the nylon material together. When the chutes deployed they were effectively blocks of nylon.

    When they checked the unlaunched Soyuz 2 it was found that the same thing had happened.

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  2. The narrative described in "Starman" and in that NPR article has been debunked by space historian Asif Siddiqi of Fordman University in his 2020 publication, "Soyuz 1: The Death of Vladimir Komarov". Komarov was a test pilot and a professional; he would not have "cursed" his ship or the Soviet authorities. In fact, Komarov did not know that he would die; he perished upon impact when the parachutes of the Soyuz capsule got tangled. There was no way he could have known that while he was still able to transmit on his ship's radio. Here is an accurate video showing Komarov's last words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFY8N8wpAzs.

    Also, the story about Yuri Gagarin showing up to Komarov's launch begging to be put in a spacesuit is also false. Soviet cosmonauts stopped wearing spacesuits for simple flights into orbit (no spacewalks) in 1964, which was actually Komarov's first flight - Voskhod-1. Cosmonauts would not wear spacesuits until 1971, after a tragedy in which the Soyuz-11 crew perished as their spacecraft depressurized. It was a preventable tragedy that would not have been a problem had the cosmonauts worn spacesuits.

    It is upsetting that these false narratives continue to be spread. These sensationalized fabrications of Vladimir Komarov's death are insults to the cosmonaut's memory and his professionalism. He deserved so much better than to be denigrated in this way, after having experienced such a traumatic death by impact.

    ReplyDelete

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