The Most Disastrous Space Mission Ever
On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered the immortal words “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” bringing to a close the decade-long Space Race between the US and USSR. While the Americans beating the Soviets to the moon might seem inevitable in hindsight, this was not always the case. Indeed, the early days of the Space Race were marked by a seemingly endless string of spectacular Soviet achievements, including the first earth-orbiting satellite, the first animal in space, the first spacecraft to reach the moon, the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the moon, the first man in space, the first woman in space, and the first “space walk.” Meanwhile, the American space program struggled to keep pace, resulting in a series of embarrassing, high-profile failures – and for more on that, please check out our previous video ‘Kaputnik’: America’s Largely Forgotten Disastrous First Attempt to Launch a Satellite. But this seemingly unstoppable Soviet success hid a dark reality. While NASA operated in the full light of public scrutiny, the Soviet space program was cloaked in military secrecy, concealing a deeply flawed system rife with corruption, incompetence, and government officials more than willing to place political and ideological goals above the safety of cosmonauts. And never did these fatal flaws become more apparent than on April 24, 1967 when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov became the first person to die on a space mission. This is the story of the ill-fated flight of Soyuz 1.
Following the final mission of Project Mercury in May 1963, NASA announced it would be moving on to the more sophisticated 2-man Gemini and 3-man Apollo programs. In an attempt to one-up the Americans and score another propaganda victory, the Soviets hastily modified the Vostok spacecraft which had carried Yuri Gagarin and five other cosmonauts into orbit, deleting the ejection seat and other equipment to allow three cosmonauts to squeeze inside. The resulting spacecraft, named Voskhod, or “sunrise”, first flew on October 12, 1964 with cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov, Konstantin Feokistov, and Boris Yegorov aboard. This was the first spaceflight in history with a multi-person crew. Five months later, Voskhod 2 achieved another milestone when cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the world’s first “space walk”, floating outside the spacecraft for a brief 12 minutes. Yet despite these accomplishments, both missions were plagued with problems. The crew of Voskhod 1 had to diet in order to fit into their spacecraft, and without ejection seats, spacesuits, or other safety equipment, had no way of surviving a major emergency. Meanwhile, Leonov’s space suit ballooned in the vacuum of space, nearly preventing him from fitting back through the airlock. The spacecraft also tumbled violently on reentry and landed 400 kilometres off-target in the Ural Mountains, forcing Leonov and crewmate Pavel Belayev to spend a long, cold night in the capsule surrounded by hungry wolves before being rescued. In light of these difficulties, Soviet designers decided they had pushed the Vostok capsule technology as far as it could go and switched their focus to a far more sophisticated spacecraft design called Soyuz, or “union.”
Soyuz was the Soviet answer to the American Apollo spacecraft. A significant improvement over the crude Vostok and Voskhod capsules, Soyuz featured engines, thrusters, and automated guidance systems that allowed it to change its orbit and altitude, rendezvous and dock with other spacecraft, and perform a variety of other sophisticated maneuvers. Launched atop the massive N-1 rocket – the Soviet equivalent of the American Saturn V – the Soyuz was designed carry two cosmonauts on a lunar orbit rendezvous mission broadly similar to that used by Apollo. However, as with most Russian hardware, the design philosophy of Soyuz – and indeed the Soviet Lunar Program as a whole – was considerably different from its American counterpart. As the N-1 rocket was less powerful and efficient than the Saturn V, the LK Lander – the Soviet equivalent of the Apollo Lunar Module – had to be significantly smaller, and could only carry a single cosmonaut to the lunar surface. And since the Soyuz and LK lacked an Apollo-style docking hatch, said cosmonaut was forced to transfer from one spacecraft to another by performing a brief spacewalk. But the Soyuz did have certain advantages over Apollo. While Apollo had only a single crew compartment, Soyuz had two: a bell-shaped descent module in which the crew launched and returned to earth, and a spherical orbital module for use in space, giving the crew significantly more leg room. Also, unlike Apollo, which was powered by hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells, Soyuz featured a pair of solar panels, giving it much greater endurance.
However, these enhanced capabilities came at the cost of greater complexity and a longer development cycle, and the Soviet space program soon entered something of a lull, with no manned missions being flown for a full two years. Meanwhile, the first three unmanned tests of Soyuz ended in disaster, with Soyuz 7K-OK No.1 blowing up shortly after launch and Kosmos 133 and 140 suffering catastrophic guidance system failures and tumbling violently to earth. These setbacks made it unlikely that a manned mission could be flown before 1968. At least, that would have been the case had it not been for that great bugbear of Soviet technological development: politics. In the two years since Voskhod 2, the Americans had flown no fewer than 10 Project Gemini missions, accomplishing many important firsts including the first American spacewalk, the first two-week-long space flight, the first controlled rendezvous of two spacecraft, and the first docking of two spacecraft. In the process NASA had mastered all the skills it needed for a trip to the moon and was ready to move forward with Project Apollo, the first flight of which was scheduled for later February 1967. The government of Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin was thus anxious to launch a new manned mission and regain some of the momentum lost over the past two years. There were also other, more ideological factors. 1967 marked not only the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution but also the 97th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth. Furthermore, Brezhnev was scheduled to attend a summit of Soviet Bloc leaders in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia in May of that year. A successful manned mission, it was argued, would not only commemorate the revolution and demonstrate what the Soviet system was capable of, but would also give Brezhnev something to boast about at the summit. Not content with a mere shakedown cruise, the Politburo instead planned a spectacular demonstration whereby two Soyuz spacecraft – one carrying a single cosmonaut and the other three – would be launched within a day of one another and dock in orbit. Two cosmonauts would then don spacesuits and spacewalk from one spacecraft to another. With this ambitious plan in hand, Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov ordered Space Program chief Vasily Mishin to prepare the Soyuz for launch no later than May 1 – International Workers’ Day.
Mishin was horrified by the order. Not only had the spectacular failures of Kosmos 133 and 140 clearly demonstrated that the Soyuz design was nowhere ready for manned flight, but inspectors at the OKB-1 design bureau had uncovered no fewer than 203 potentially fatal flaws in the spacecraft. Nonetheless, under intense political pressure from Ustinov and the Politburo Mishin began preparing the prototype vehicles for flight and a crew was duly selected for the historic mission. Vladimir Komarov, veteran of Voskhod 1, would pilot Soyuz 1, while Alexsei Yeliseyev, Tevgeni Khrunov, and Valeri Bykovsky would crew Soyuz 2, with Yeliseyev and Khrunov being chosen to spacewalk over to Komarov’s ship. Komarov’s backup pilot would be none other than his close friend Yuri Gagarin, national hero and the first man in space. Like Mishin, Komarov and Gagarin were apprehensive about the safety of the new spacecraft. However, their concerns were met with great hostility from the Politburo, with Ustinov even threatening to strip Komorov of his military honours if he refused to fly the mission. In a desperate bid to save his friend from what he believed to be a suicide mission, Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his friend Venyamin Russayev in the KGB to pass up the chain of command. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union was a society that tended to punish the bearers of bad news, and everyone who came into contact with the memo was either demoted, fired, or reassigned – including Russayev himself, who was banned from ever associating with the Soviet space program. Meanwhile, Gagarin’s memo disappeared into the vast Soviet bureaucracy and never reached the higher authorities.
According to author Piers Bizony, shortly before the scheduled launch date Komarov met with Russayev, who asked him why he didn’t simply refuse the assignment. According to this account, Komarov burst into tears and explained:
“If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead. That’s Yura, and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.”
In reality, it was highly unlikely that Gagarin would ever be called to fly, being too much of a national asset and propaganda symbol to risk on such a dangerous mission. There was thus nothing more either man could do; one way or another, Komarov would fly the mission.
On the morning of May 23, 1967, Komarov arrived at Launch Complex 1 at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and climbed aboard his spacecraft. According to a widely-circulated account by Russian journalist Yaroslav Golavanov, Yuri Gagarin made one last effort to save his friend, storming onto the launch pad and demanding to be put in a spacesuit. Whether Gagarin was attempting to replace Komarov on the flight or simply disrupt the launch process and force the mission to be scrubbed is unknown, but no corroborating accounts have ever been found and the whole incident is believed to be nothing more than an urban legend. Whatever the case, Soyuz 1 lifted off successfully at 3:35 AM Moscow time with Komarov aboard and soon attained its planned orbit.
Almost immediately, however, the mission ran into trouble as one of the spacecraft’s two solar panels failed to deploy. This not only starved onboard systems of vital electrical power, but the stuck panel blocked the vital solar and ion-flow sensors used by the guidance system to maintain the spacecraft’s orientation. This in turn caused the spacecraft to tumble, preventing the one good solar panel from being aimed at the sun and causing further power shortages.The lopsided panels also unbalanced the spacecraft, making it difficult for Komarov to control his attitude manually. Komorov tried desperately to correct these issues, even kicking on the wall of the spacecraft in an attempt to free the stuck panel, but these efforts proved fruitless. Komarov’s problems were made even worse by an unfortunate quirk of the Soviet space program. Whereas NASA was able to establish a global network of tracking stations based in friendly nations or on picket ships in the ocean, allowing continuous communication with orbiting spacecraft, Soviet stations could only be placed within the Soviet Union and certain regions of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, meaning that for nearly half of every orbit, Komarov was on his own.
For nearly 20 hours Komarov and the mission control team lead by Boris Chertok tried valiantly to correct the spacecraft’s problems and save the mission. However, the attitude control problems soon caused Komarov’s maneuvering thruster fuel and batteries to become depleted, and on the 13th orbit the decision was made to bring Komarov home. This in turn led to the cancellation of Soyuz 2, which was scheduled to launch early the next morning. With Soyuz 1 down to only its backup battery, Mission Control planned to bring Komarov down on his 17th, 18th, or 19th orbits, when it would be daytime over the Soviet Union. With the automatic attitude control systems still out of commission, Komorov would have to align the spacecraft manually for retrofire and maintain his attitude throughout the burn. However, as the burn would have to be performed on the night side of the planet, Komarov was unable to use the special vzor optical sight designed for precisely this purpose. Instead, a technique was developed whereby Komarov would sight the moon through the spacecraft’s periscope, echoing the dramatic manual reentry of American astronaut Gordo Cooper during the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission on May 15, 1963 – and for more on that, please check out our video “I’ll Do it Myself”: The Greatest Feat of Piloting in Space on our sister channel Highlight History.
At 6:20 AM Moscow time on April 24, Komarov fired his engine to begin his reentry burn. However, Komarov was unable to maintain his attitude and the onboard computer shut off the engine prematurely. Komarov had not slowed down sufficiently to reenter the atmosphere, so another attempt was scheduled for his 19th orbit. With his backup battery running dangerously low, it would be his last chance to return home. While the computer again shut off the engine ahead of schedule, the burn was nonetheless successful and Komarov jettisoned the spacecraft’s instrument and orbital modules. Due to the asymmetry of the spacecraft and the imperfect burn the reentry was rougher than usual, the spacecraft spinning wildly and subjecting Komarov to intense G-forces. But the spacecraft held together, and as the atmosphere thickened and the capsule began to slow down it appeared as though Komarov might actually survive the harrowing mission. But when, at an altitude of 10 kilometres, the capsule deployed its drogue parachute, the main chute failed to deploy. Komarov immediately deployed his reserve chute, but this became tangled around the first drogue, preventing it, too, from deploying. In that moment, Vladimir Komarov’s fate was sealed. With nothing to slow it down, the capsule plunged to earth like a meteorite at a speed of 140 km/hr, slamming into the ground in Orenburg Oblast, south Russia, around 7AM. The tremendous impact flattened the 2-metre-tall spacecraft down to 70 centimetres and ignited the landing rockets designed to further slow Komarov’s fall, causing the spacecraft to explode into flames. A recovery team circling in a helicopter landed and rushed into action, attacking the inferno with fire extinguishers and shovelfuls of dirt. But it was already too late; by the time the crew extinguished the blaze and opened the crumpled hatch, all that remained of Vladimir Komarov was a charred lump 30 cm wide and 80 cm long, the only recognizable feature being a single heel bone. Bizarrely, an official autopsy report authoritatively listed the cause of death as severe injuries to the skull, spinal cord, and bones.
Despite a thorough investigation by the Soviet authorities, the cause of the fatal parachute failure has never been definitively established. Some sources state that the parachute design was changed at the last minute, such that they could no longer fit in the original containers. With no time to change the design before the launch deadline, the parachutes were instead packed into the undersized containers with wooden mallets, preventing them from deploying properly. Other sources ascribe the failure to faulty pressure sensors, while still others, including mission controller Boris Chertok, blame a glue-like thermal protective coating applied to the surface of the spacecraft. This coating was cured by placing the spacecraft in a large oven called an autoclave. When Soyuz 1 was treated, the covers for the parachute containers were not yet available, meaning that the coating could easily have seeped into the containers, gluing the parachutes in place. Test versions of the spacecraft were not subjected to the autoclave treatment, preventing the problem from being spotted earlier. If this theory is correct, then the same flaw would also have affected Soyuz 2, meaning that Komarov’s death inadvertently saved the lives of his three comrades.
Vladimir Komarov received a state funeral in Moscow’s Red Square on April 26, 1967, his charred remains lying in state before being interred in the Kremlin walls. It was the second fatal space accident that year after the Apollo 1 fire of January 27, prompting a group of American astronauts to send a message of sympathy to the Soviet National Academy of Sciences:
“We are very saddened by the loss of Col. Komarov. We feel comradeship for this test pilot because we have met several of his fellow cosmonauts and we know that we are all involved in a pioneering flight effort that is not without hazard. We particularly want to express our deep sense of sympathy to Mrs. Komarov, their children and his fellow cosmonauts.”
The secretive and mysterious nature of the Soviet space program has long provided fertile ground for speculation and conspiracy theories, and the tragic flight of Soyuz 1 is no exception. Over the years a number of myths have grown up around the ill-fated mission, including that Premier Kosygin and Komarovs wife called the doomed cosmonaut via video phone to tell him he was a hero, and that American listening stations in Turkey picked up radio transmissions of Komarov angrily cursing the Soviet government as he plummeted to his death. Both these claims are easily disproven, however, as Soyuz 1 did not have videophone equipment installed and mission transcripts reveal that Komarov was calm, collected, and professional until the very end, his actual last words being recorded as:
“I feel excellent, everything is in order. Thank you to everyone. The separation- ”
The tragedy of Soyuz 1 had a profound effect on the Soviet space program comparable to that of the Apollo 1 fire on NASA. The Soyuz spacecraft would not fly again until October 26, 1968, piloted by cosmonaut Georgi Beregovo, while the docking and crew transfer planned for Soyuz 1 and 2 would not be accomplished until the dual flights of Soyuz 4 and 5 on January 14, 1969. By this time, however, the Americans had pulled far ahead in the Space Race, with Apollo 8 successfully orbiting the moon and Apollo 9 successfully testing the Lunar Module in orbit. Meanwhile, all four test launches of the N-1 rocket ended in massive explosions, dashing any hopes of the Soviets reaching the moon. The successful July 20 landing of Apollo 11 was merely the final nail in the coffin.
Yet in spite of its early teething problems, the Soyuz spacecraft would go on to become the indispensable workhorse of the Soviet and later Russian space programs. With only 4 fatalities over 54 years and 150 crewed launches, it is the most successful and reliable manned spacecraft in history, and for a 9-year period between the last Space Shuttle launch in 2011 and the first crewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft mission in 2020, the only means of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. With the basic design being continuously upgraded, the rugged Soyuz will likely continue to serve Russia and the world’s space transport needs for many decades to come. Thus, while the tragedy of Vladimir Komarov and Soyuz 1 serves as a tragic reminder of the failings of the Soviet system, it is also a perfect encapsulation of that great motto of space exploration: Per Ardua Ad Astra – “through adversity to the stars”.
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