Traveling to space is an inherently dangerous thing to do. In the first years of the space race, both the Soviet Union and the United States were fortunate in that none of their missions resulted in a loss of life.
However, 1967 saw that luck run out for both countries. NASA saw the death of three astronauts in Apollo 1, and the Soviets lost their first cosmonaut during the Soyuz 1 mission.
The Soyuz 1 mission is one that few people are aware of today, and it changed the entire course of the space race.
Learn more about Vladimir Komarov and the fateful mission of Soyuz 1 on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The beginning of the space race went really well for the Soviet Union.
They put the first satellite into orbit, the first dog into orbit, the first man into orbit, the first woman into orbit, they sent the first human object to the moon, and had the first space walk.
However, that rush of firsts in space ground to a halt in 1965.
The first six Soviet manned space flights were with a vehicle known as the Vostok capsule. This was the Soviet equivalent of the American Mercury capsules. They could hold a single person and orbit the Earth for a few days.
In hindsight, it probably wasn’t as sophisticated as the Mercury capsule, but it worked, and with it, they were able to accomplish so many of their space firsts.
The Vostok flights lasted a little over two years, from 1961 to 1963.
In 1964, they launched a new capsule, which was really just a modified Vostok capsule, called the Voskhod.
The Voskhod removed the emergency ejection equipment and some other things to add a second and third seat.
There were only two Voskhod flights, one in October 1964 with three crew members and one in March 1965 with two crew members.
After that, there was a halt in Soviet human spaceflight for more than two years.
The Vostok/Voskhod capsule wasn’t really cut out to do anything beyond going into orbit for a few days and coming back.
The Soviets needed a new generation of vehicles to get to space, and so they began the development of the Soyuz spacecraft.
The Soyuz spacecraft would be designed for a crew of three, unlike the Voskhod, which was really a single-person capsule with extra seats crammed in.
The Soyuz would have a radically different design from the previous capsules. There would be three different segments to the spacecraft: an orbital module, a service module, and a reentry module.
The orbital and service modules would be jettison upon reentry and burn up.
The other big design change was that the Soyuz capsule was designed to land on the ground with the cosmonauts still inside. Prior to this, the cosmonauts had to eject before hitting the ground and parachute to the surface because the landing would be too rough otherwise.
The new Soyuz would have retro rockets that would fire just before landing to soften the touchdown.
Looking backward from the third decade of the 21st century, the Soyuz has proven to be one of the most reliable spacecraft in history. It is still in use today as of the date I am recording this, and it has flown over 140 successful missions over the last half-century.
However, it wasn’t always like that.
The Soviet space program was hit with a massive setback on January 14, 1966, when Sergei Korolev, the father of Soviet space flight, died on the operating room table during what should have been a routine procedure for hemorrhoids.
Korolev was the equivalent of Werner von Braun for the Soviets. He had designed the rockets and all of the capsules used at that point by the USSR.
Moreover, no one outside of the Soviet Union really knew who he was. He was never publicly mentioned in the Soviet press for fear that he could be compromised by foreign agents.
The initial Soyuz design was Korolev’s design, but now that he was gone, the Soviet space program lost the rudder which had been steering them since its inception.
The Soviets launched an unmanned Soyuz capsule on November 28, 1966
Everything seemed to have gone well. However, all was not well.
There were many concerns inside the Soviet space program about the development of the new spacecraft. Soyuz was still riddled with problems and wasn’t considered spaceworthy.
An internal report detailed a list of 203 different problems with the spacecraft that needed to be addressed.
Had Sergei Korolev been around, something might have been done about it. Korolev, having been responsible for every single Soviet space achievement, had a lot of clout and power. His replacements, however, did not.
Eventually, the order came down that the first manned launch of a Soyuz spacecraft was to take place in April 1967. It wasn’t just going to be another test launch. This was going to be another space spectacle that could be used for propaganda purposes.
Soyuz 1 was to be launched with a single cosmonaut. The day after, Soyuz 2 was to be launched with three cosmonauts. The two craft would then rendezvous in orbit.
The cosmonaut from Soyuz 1 would don a space suit and go to Soyuz 2, while a cosmonaut from Soyuz 2 would go to Soyuz 1.
Having switched around the crews, the two spacecraft would then return to Earth.
There was one other thing. This space rendezvous was to take place on May Day, the biggest day on the Soviet calendar, and this supposedly came down from the General Secretary of the Community Party himself, Leonid Brezhnev.
The concerns about this mission were widespread, and most of the cosmonauts and engineers felt that a late April launch was too soon. The outstanding issues on the Soyuz had to be fixed before they could launch.
The cosmonaut who was assigned to Soyuz 1 was Vladimir Komarov.
Komarov was an accomplished test pilot and an engineer. He took an active role in the Soviet space program. He was not selected as one of the first six cosmonauts due to age and height restrictions, but he was in the next group.
He was to fly in one of the earlier Vostok missions but was grounded due to a heart irregularity. He eventually lobbied until he was let back into the program.
He was arguably the smartest and most academically gifted of the cosmonauts at the time.
He ended up being assigned as the commander of Voskhod 1, which launched in October 1964. His assignment to Soyuz 1 would make him the first cosmonaut to travel to space twice.
While in the cosmonaut program, he became very good friends with another cosmonaut, and one whose name you have probably heard of, Yuri Gagarin. More on that in a bit.
Komarov, being an engineer, was probably more aware of the problems with Soyuz than any of the other cosmonauts. He and the other cosmonauts expressed their concerns to the higher-ups, but nothing was done.
The backup cosmonaut for Soyuz 1 was none other than Yuri Gagarin. Given his status as a Soviet hero, having been the first person in space, Gargarin wrote a 10-page letter which he addressed to Leonid Brezhnev, documenting all of the problems with the Soyuz program.
Gagarin gave the letter to his KGB handler, Venyamin Russayev, to pass up the chain of command, but nothing happened. In fact, the only thing to actually come about from the letter was that Russayev was reassigned.
No one in the space program had the will to cancel or postpone the launch.
As the date of the launch grew closer, there was a growing suspicion that this was to be a suicide mission. In fact, Komarov supposedly told Russayev bluntly, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.”
Komarov was asked why he just didn’t decline to fly the mission, which he could have done. The answer was, if he declined, then Gagarin would have flown instead. Gagarin was his friend and far more important to the country than he was.
On the day of the launch, Gagarin was behaving oddly. He wasn’t supposed to escort Komarov to the capsule, but he did. He also requested a pressure suit.
No one is sure why he did this. One theory was he was trying to muscle Komarov out of the mission to save him. Another theory is that he just wanted to sneak a pressure suit into the capsule as another layer of protection for Komarov. Yet another theory holds that he was just trying to cause chaos to disrupt and cancel the launch.
Soyuz 1 was launched early on April 23, 1967, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is today Kazakhstan.
The launch went fine. As soon as Komarov was in orbit, however, things began to go wrong.
Immediately, one of the solar panels failed to unfold. This alone would have been enough to scrub the mission because the spacecraft didn’t have enough power.
However, there was more. The undeployed solar panel was blocking the sensor that could see the sun, which was necessary for stabilization and altitude control.
Komarov tried everything he could, from using thrusters to kicking the sides of the capsule, but nothing worked. Moreover, because only one solar panel was deployed, the spacecraft was now asymmetrical, which made it more difficult to control.
Ground control eventually gave the order to abandon the mission on the 13th orbit. They would try to deorbit on the 17th orbit, which gave them a margin of error to do the deorbit on the 18th or 19th orbit if necessary.
Back on the ground, the Soyuz 2 craft that Komarov was supposed to rendezvous with was never launched due to a thunderstorm which caused the electrical system to fail.
Komarov needed the extra orbits because nothing was working. He had a difficult time orienting the spacecraft, and the high-frequency antenna had failed, which meant he could only communicate using UHF, which was intermittent.
Komarov, being the skilled pilot and engineer he was, managed to orient the spacecraft by the 19th orbit, which was his last chance to reenter the Earth. He managed to skillfully do a manual reentry at just the right angle to bring Soyuz 1 back to Earth.
However, his problems weren’t over. The drogue chute deployed, but the main braking parachute did not deploy. When he tried to deploy the backup parachute, it got tied up with the drogue chute.
Soyuz 1 was now a man-made meteor that was hurtling to the Earth. Vladimir Komarov was going to die. He and everyone on the mission knew it.
What happened next has been a subject of great debate. According to the legend, the last radio transmission of Soyuz 1 was picked up by an American NSA radio outpost in Istanbul, Turkey.
Supposedly, in the few minutes that Komarov was plunging to the surface, he managed to talk to his wife on the radio, as well as the former Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, who was in the mission control room. Everyone was crying as they spoke their last words.
The last words of Vladimir Komarov were him screaming. Not screaming in fear or panic, but screaming at the politicians and people who ran the space program for the incompetence that had gotten him killed.
The impact of Soyuz 1 killed Komarov instantly. The force when it hit the ground was so great that it flattened the 2-meter steel sphere down to just 80 centimeters. When it hit the ground, the retrorockets that were supposed to fire to cushion the landing exploded, incinerating everything inside.
The body of Vladimir Komarov was unrecognizable as even having been human. It was a lump that was 12 inches by 31 inches and completely burnt.
Believe it or not, an open casket funeral was held for him, and there were photos taken of military officials standing around the body. Incredibly, these images are online, and the body looks just like a piece of burnt driftwood. You would never recognize it as being a human being.
Komarov was buried with full honors, and today his ashes are interred in the wall of the Kremlin.
An investigation found that the problem with the parachutes on Soyuz 1 was also found on Soyuz 2. If Soyuz 1 hadn’t had the problems it had in orbit, the other spacecraft would have eventually been launched, and both spacecraft would have been lost on reentry.
Yuri Gagarin was furious. He supposedly said to another cosmonaut, “I’ll get through to [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..”
According to some legends, Gagarin eventually did meet with Brezhnev and threw a drink in his face.
It was a year and a half before another Soyuz flew again. By the time that finally happened, the Americans had recovered from their own space disaster, which took place just a few months before Soyuz 1, Apollo 1.
However, NASA was able to bounce back much faster. By the time Soyuz 3 flew a successful mission, Apollo 8 was just a few weeks away from traveling around the moon and back. In a very real way, you could say that Soyuz 1 lost the space race for the Soviets.
The tragedy of the death of Vladimir Komarov was that it was totally preventable. If the Soviets had just taken a bit more time to make sure everything worked, the tragedy could have been avoided, and it could have changed the course of the Soviet space program.