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24 April 2019

The Hero of Soyuz 1, Between Myth and Reality

Estimated reading time Time 5 to read

On April 24, 1967, Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov became the first fatality of a space flight, three months after the three crew members of Apollo 1 lost their lives on the launch pad because of a fire during a test. As with the three American astronauts, the history of the pilot of Soyuz 1 is that of a pioneer who died in the quest for new horizons. But as often happens in these cases, the facts have been adorned with legends that attempt to further magnify the tragic heroism of the event.

These are the facts. On April 23, 1967, Komarov took off into Earth orbit aboard the first manned Soyuz spacecraft. In the heat of the space race, the Soviet Union had lost ground against its American rival. In spite of the initial triumph provided by the orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin in 1961, the USSR had not sent a man into space since 1965, whereas NASA had successfully completed numerous manned missions. It was time to recover lost ground, and the Soviet authorities desperately wanted a coup that would serve to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the May Day celebration.

The urge to defeat the adversary

Therefore, political pressure was a decisive factor that hastened the preparation of the mission, according to Asif Siddiqi, a historian at the University of Fordham (USA) specializing in the Russian space race. However, even in those moments when the urge to defeat the adversary took precedence over safety, sending the Soyuz spacecraft into space with a pilot on board was a very risky bet: the three unmanned test flights had all failed, and some of the technicians in charge had pointed out at least 101 anomalies in different systems of the craft. However, optimism prevailed over prudence, and Komarov, a pilot with extensive experience and one space flight under his belt, was seen as the right man to set the next milestone of Soviet technological might.

Vladimir Komarov and  Yuri Gagarin. Source: Wikimedia

In fact, the mission was even more ambitious: while Komarov orbited the Earth, a second Soyuz was scheduled to take off with three crew members on board. Both ships were supposed to meet up in space so that two of the Soyuz 2 cosmonauts could join Komarov before returning to Earth. But almost from the first moment it became clear that leaving so many loose ends to chance had been a mistake. As soon as it reached Earth’s orbit, the two solar panels of Soyuz 1 should have deployed. One failed to do so.

A chain of failures

This was only the first of a chain of failures, from telemetry and sensor systems to orientation and propulsion systems. It seemed that Komarov’s ship was destined for disaster. Officially, the launch of Soyuz 2 was canceled because of a storm. “Post-USSR Russian sources make it clear the cancellation was due to severe problems on Soyuz 1,” James Oberg, a former NASA engineer and historian of the Russian space program, told OpenMind. “The cancellation thus saved the lives of the two guys who were supposed to transfer over and ride home with Komarov.”

In spite of everything, the immense skill of Komarov managed to overcome all the obstacles and orient his craft towards a correct reentry in the atmosphere. When the Russian authorities flew to the estimated landing site, they still expected to find the cosmonaut safe and sound. Only one more system had to work correctly for Komarov to get home safely, and it did not: the failure of the parachutes to open correctly caused the spacecraft to crash into the ground at 144 km/h. The impact killed Komarov, but it was not the last misfortune to be suffered by the spacecraft. The first witnesses who arrived witnessed how the retrorockets, which were supposed to activate prior to touchdown to soften the landing, began firing once they were on the ground, which ignited the rest of the fuel and turned the vehicle into a mass of molten metal.

Soyuz 1. Source: Spaceth

Only senior officers were able to look at what was left of Komarov’s body, a “shapeless black lump,” according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Nikolai Kamanin, who was responsible for training the cosmonauts. The remains were incinerated and interred with full honors in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis at Red Square. “The parachute failure was attributed to over-tight packing of the parachute in the compartment,” says Oberg. According to Siddiqi, an error in the finishing of the compartment was also unofficially suggested; but in any case, it seems certain that the Soyuz 2 parachute would not have worked either.

The beginning of the legend

Here the facts end, and the legend begins. In the book Starman by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony (Walker & Company, 2011) they claim that Yuri Gagarin, Komarov’s great friend, had submitted a report to the authorities reviewing the multiple failures of the Soyuz, that both cosmonauts knew that the mission was a passage to death, and that despite everything Komarov decided to fly to save his friend, who was his replacement pilot. “As far as we know, in terms of reliable evidence, Gagarin never complained about the defects on the Soyuz,” Siddiqi told OpenMind. “I think all the cosmonauts knew that this was a high-risk mission, but I don’t think any expected it to be fatal.”

“The story that Komarov took the mission even though he expected to die, to save Gagarin, is the sort of heroic self-sacrificing myths that Russians and all people love,” adds Oberg. “But enough personal diaries of key figures in the launch decision offer no hint of confirmation.”

Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov, his wife Valentina Komarov, and their daughter Irina. Source: Wikimedia

According to another widely reported story, Komarov was so aware of his imminent end that from earth orbit he said goodbye to his wife and a high-ranking Soviet leader, and plumetted toward the ground screaming with rage and cursing those who had placed him in that ill-fated spacecraft. But according to Siddiqi and Oberg, none of this is supported by real evidence. Oberg points out that this version first appeared in a magazine, based on the narration from a presumed American intelligence agent. “It might also just have been a tall story they told all the new kids,” he suggests.

The truth is that no one would have reproached Komarov for screaming and cursing. But it does not appear that he did it: on the contrary and as is gathered from his final communications, he stayed calm, cool and collected at all times while his systems failed one after another, even reassuring his colleagues on the ground. “I feel excellent, everything is in order,” he said, just before his last words were heard: “Thank you to everyone. The separation…”

Javier Yanes


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