On April 24th, 1967 Space claimed its first victim.
Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov crashed into the ground when the main parachute on his Soyuz 1 descent capsule failed to open.
He became the first cosmonaut to fly into space twice and the first man to die while on a space mission (Apollo 1 tragedy happened 3 months earlier during the ground test).
The Soyuz 1 launch was rushed by the Soviet officials who wanted another space achievement for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. At that time, SOYUZ spacecraft, now the safest vehicle to carry humans into space, was not yet ready for a manned flight. The cosmonauts involved, including Komarov himself, knew that the craft was unsafe. Before the Soyuz 1 crewed launch, there were three unmanned test missions. All of them failed. The first craft malfunctioned, the second one exploded on the launch pad and the third sank in the sea.
Despite all that and ignoring the 203 design faults engineers found during the Soyuz 1 pre-flight check, the state officials decided to go ahead with the fatal launch. A reprehensible decision!
This tragic, preventable and unnecessary death of an experienced cosmonaut, highly qualified pilot and engineer, a husband, a father and a humble human being deeply shook the cosmonaut corps, the Soviet people and the rest of the World.
It took 18 months for the Soviet Union to resume manned space flights.
THE GRAND PLAN
Komarov’s flight was to become another get that, Americans achievement of the Soviet space engineering. The ambitious plan involved not one, but two Soyuz spacecraft.
The second vehicle, Soyuz 2A, with 3 cosmonauts on board, was to be launched a day after Komarov’s Soyuz 1. The two spacecraft were supposed to meet in orbit and part of the Soyuz 2A crew was to join Komarov in Soyuz 1 for the return journey. Luckily, the second mission was cancelled at the last moment, undoubtedly saving the lives of the crew assigned.
THE DOOMED FLIGHT OF SOYUZ 1
Soyuz 1 was launched on April 23rd, 1967 from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 3:35 AM local time. The launch went as planned, but the problems began as soon as the craft reached its orbit. First, one of the solar panels failed to open. Komarov tried to turn the spacecraft to orient the second panel towards the Sun, but with no success. The lack of power threatened to compromise the onboard life support systems. Navigation didn’t work too.
The ground control decided to abort the mission as soon as it was possible. 27 hours and 18 orbits around the Earth later – and the cosmonaut was finally on his way back home. He managed to manually orient the ship and fire the retrorockets and the hopes in the Mission Control Center went up. We can hear Yuri Gagarin, his CAPCOM during the landing, say*
*the dialog below is the author’s translation of the released records
G-Yuri Gagarin, K- Vladimir Komarov
G: Prepare for final operations… be careful… keep calm…everything is going fine
K: Yes, the automatic descend with lunar orientation is about to begin
K: I am in the middle chair, strapped in
G: How are you feeling? How are you?
K: Feeling great, everything is fine!
G: Copy that. The comrades here recommend that you take deep breaths. Waiting for your landing.
K: Thank you, pass it on to everybody…
Unfortunately, the main parachute of the landing capsule failed to open and Vladimir Komarov crashed into the Earth at 60 meters per second.
VLADIMIR KOMAROV: LIFE AND CAREER
Komarov was born in Moscow in 1927. After a seven-year year primary school, at the age of 15, Vladimir was accepted into a prestigious “First Moscow Special Air Force School” and then went on to study as an air pilot. He qualified in 1949 and served as fighter pilot and later as test pilot. In 1959 Komarov was invited to join the new Soviet space program and made it into the first Soviet cosmonaut team.
He was not meant to become a cosmonaut. Age 32 at the start of the training, Komarov was already over the required age cap of 27. He also didn’t meet the health requirements. Nevertheless, Komarov completed the cosmonaut training in 1961 and in 1964 was selected as a commander of the first 3-man mission Voskhod 1 along with Konstantin Feoklistov and Boris Yegorov. The 24 hour long space flight went well and Komarov received a number of state awards and promotions.
When the time came to test the new Soyuz spacecraft, it is said that Gagarin himself recommended Komarov as a pilot. Komarov’s assignment was approved and Gagarin was made his back up.
Gagarin and Komarov were good friends and many cosmonauts recall in their later interviews that Komarov agreed to fly the faulty Soyuz 1 to protect Gagarin. If Komarov withdrew, Gagarin would have taken his place. But many historians point out that Gagarin was a backup only on paper. He was the first, a national hero, and he would have never been allowed to fly another space mission. Either way, Vladimir Komarov had no choice but to report to his superiors “ready for the flight”. The flight that cost him his life.
The Australian composer Brett Dean wrote a 6 minute orchestra tribute to the fallen hero.
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