The First Fatal Spaceflight

Myths and memories of Vladimir Komarov’s Soyuz 1 mission.

Yuri Gagarin (in cap) accompanies Vladimir Komarov (to his right) on the walk to the launch pad, early on the morning of April 23, 1967. (RussianSpaceWeb.com)
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Half a century ago, on April 23, 1967, the Soviet Union proudly announced a new spacecraft orbiting Earth, piloted by 40-year-old cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, flying solo. The long-expected Soyuz-1 mission had followed a two-year hiatus in the Soviet space program, during which NASA had grabbed most of the headlines in the race between the two superpowers to reach the moon.

Just three months before Komarov blasted off, however, NASA had suffered a fire on the launch pad that took the lives of three Apollo astronauts. While the Americans were still reeling from the disaster, the new-generation Soyuz spacecraft was designed to close the gap and re-take the initiative for the Soviets. So it came as a shock when, just 24 hours after Komarov’s launch, it was announced that he, too, had died—the first fatality during a spaceflight.

Unlike with the Apollo fire, the exact circumstances surrounding the veteran cosmonaut’s death remained largely under wraps for decades.  The official Soviet press only confirmed at the time that Komarov had died during landing as a result of the twisting of lines when the main parachute released at an altitude of seven kilometers.

Not surprisingly, this official secrecy provided fertile ground for a whirlwind of rumors, some of which are still circulating today. The most popular story, which many Soviet citizens heard in the 1970s and ’80s, was about Komarov’s screams over the radio during his deadly plunge to the ground. He was reportedly swearing at top Kremlin officials, including Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, for sending him on a deadly mission.

Besides being rather unlikely behavior for an experienced test pilot, no credible source has ever provided a copy of the infamous recording, despite all the documents and revelations about much darker aspects of Soviet history that have come out since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, in order for people on the ground to hear Komarov’s radioed voice, his capsule would have had to release a special antenna that was embedded in the lines of the main parachute. But as we know, the main parachute remained stuck in its storage container.

The continuing popularity of the story is grounded in the truth that Soviet space officials were under constant pressure from the Kremlin to produce space spectaculars as often as possible.  By April 1967, the U.S.S.R. had not launched any cosmonauts for two years, and the Day of Workers Solidarity on May 1 was seen as a perfect opportunity for Soviet leaders to remind the world of the “achievements of the socialist system.” The long-delayed first Soyuz mission would also coincide with a summit of Soviet-bloc leaders in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, which would give Brezhnev something to brag about.

In the years since the accident, some Russian authors have named Dmitry Ustinov, a powerful member of the Soviet Politburo who oversaw the rocket industry, as the key person pushing the deadline for the Soyuz-1 mission. Ustinov reportedly held numerous meetings on the issue, and personally pressured Vasily Mishin, the head of the TsKBEM design bureau that developed Soyuz, to fly on the eve of the Karlovy Vary summit.

According to another account, Ustinov also threatened Komarov, who was supposedly skeptical about the Soyuz’ readiness for flight, that he would “remove stars from his chest and shoulder straps,” unless the cosmonaut agreed to launch. Although that portrayal of Ustinov well matches the stereotype of a Soviet apparatchik, a careful evaluation of newly available accounts paints a much more nuanced picture.

Mishin’s notes indicate that it was Komarov himself who was pressing to switch from test launches of Soyuz with no crew to piloted missions as soon as possible. Mishin’s deputy, Boris Chertok, heard similar impatience expressed by Komarov’s backup, Yuri Gagarin. Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training, even expressed satisfaction in his diary about mission control struggling to resolve technical problems onboard unpiloted prototypes of Soyuz, because they showed the importance of having a pilot in the cockpit. Kamanin’s sentiment illustrates a raging debate at the time on the role of the pilot in spaceflight, as robotic probes and spy satellites were increasingly taking priority over humans in scientific and military missions.

The idea that Komarov was forced to take more risk on Soyuz 1 than he was comfortable with also ignores the experience of the early cosmonauts. He, Gagarin and other pilots training for the early Soyuz missions had been through the pioneering Vostok program just a few years earlier, during which they all had taken tremendous risks, and had come back to Earth safe and victorious.

No doubt, when Komarov took his seat inside Soyuz-1 on April 23, 1967, he clearly understood the danger he was facing. He also wanted to fly, and to launch as soon as possible.

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