Aiming for Arkalyk
Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, September 1998
(Page 4 of 6)
This is how it happens usually. But today is not much of a day for sipping tea or pitching tents. Three stretchers on the helicopter floor will have to do. Mikhalishev keeps the blades churning while Fyodorov’s team rushes through pared-down physicals. Half an hour later, they’re in the air, headed back toward civilization.
Meanwhile, in Kustanai, it’s time for lunch. Herve Stevenin, the French space official, looks forlornly at a sophisticated incubator he’d hoped to take to the landing site to hold six salamanders who’ve been busily laying eggs on board Mir. He fears the reptiles will freeze before he sees them again. Glazkov and his Star City back-benchers have long ago drifted despondently from the runway, their own hopes of reaching the landing site dashed.
Yet certain courtesies must be observed. The political elite of Kustanai—a featureless cinderblock settlement of 300,000 people thrown up, like nearly everything else in northern Kazakhstan, to exploit a nearby metals seam—have turned out in their finery. A Jeep Cherokee awaits the most important Moscow visitors; a sharp new touring bus will transport the lower-downs, like doctors and journalists. The pasty official toast-mastering the less exclusive banquet is the picture of provincial ex-Soviet sleaze, and is obsessed with the idea of touring the local chocolate factory. But after four or five vodkas and a steaming bowl of borscht, he kind of grows on everybody.
The drama and danger of space landing start to recede from our thoughts. Yet some Russian space veterans can recall past disasters only too well. Between 1967 and 1976 Soyuz spacecraft experienced five serious accidents. Four of them involved failures during reentry or landing. Two were fatal.
Disaster struck on the very first Soyuz flight—April 23, 1967—and old-timers still curse the apparatchiks for it. The record strongly suggests that the new vehicle was not ready for flight. That was what the U.S. intelligence concluded, based on the mistaken premise that the Soyuz had undergone four test launches. In fact there had been only three.
But 1967 was the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, and the Party wanted something to boast about on May Day. So Vladimir Komarov was sent up for a three-day mission. Trouble began when one of the vehicle’s solar arrays failed to open. Several key systems failed for lack of power, including the one that navigated the reentry. Komarov managed to find the right trajectory manually and landed on target. But rescuers found his ship on fire, with onlookers from the nearby village of Karabatuk frantically throwing dirt on it. Komarov’s charred bones were later found inside, along with a main parachute that had failed to open.
This was Russian spaceflight’s grisliest moment until Soyuz 11 returned to Earth in June 1971. Mission control had no inkling of trouble during the capsule’s descent, and a hero’s welcome awaited Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, the first crew to live on the Salyut space station. Popping the hatch, rescuers found the cosmonauts in place and untouched, but dead. The best postmortem guess was that an air vent meant to open well within the atmosphere (at 13,000 feet) opened instead in space when the reentry capsule separated from the Soyuz orbital module. Death by pulmonary embolism took less than a minute.
In between fatal accidents came Boris Volinov’s miraculous survival of the 1969 Soyuz 5 landing. Leaving orbit, his small reentry capsule failed to disengaged from the rest of the Soyuz vehicle. Volinov hurtled toward Earth with a flaming three-ton piece of excess baggage on his back. “They say that in TsUP someone started passing a hat for funeral money,” writes Mikhail Rebrov, a Russian military journalist who himself trained as a cosmonaut in the 1960s. Fortunately the capsule finally disengaged, and the parachutes opened. But the impact broke all of Volinov’s upper teeth at the roots.