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Aiming for Arkalyk

Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.

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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.

That detail, of course, was hidden from the public.  TASS reported only that “A unique experiment was concluded.  The ship landed in the designated region.”  An old-school flier who put duty first, Volinov even came out to meet the official press as he flew back to Moscow, holding his hand over his face to hide the injuries.  “Takeoff proceeded normally.  The technology worked reliably,” he told them, then politely signed a few autographs.  Doctors told Volinov his cosmonaut days were over.  Seven yeas later on Soyuz 21, he proved them wrong.

But the landing that best revealed cosmonaut character was on Soyuz 18A in April 1975.  Vasily Lazarev and Oleg Makarov had risen to an altitude of 120 miles when their R-7 booster malfunctioned, prompting an abort.  Instead of soaring into orbit, the pair plummeted back to Earth on a trajectory that raised their G-level above 20.  Test pilots’ kidneys have ruptured at 15 Gs.

Twenty-one minutes after takeoff the cosmonauts’ capsule was hanging by its enormous parachute from a tree in what turned out to be the Altai mountains of southern Siberia, near the Mongolian boarder.  April is still winter in Altai.  It was snowing hard and getting dark.  The cosmonauts leapt out into waist-deep snow and divined that their ship was at the edge of a precipice, its weight slowly snapping the pine branches that held it.  Another few yards and they would have fallen to certain death.  Lazarev and Makarov whipped off their spacesuits and used them to prop up the precious capsule, facing the freezing night dressed only in track suits.  Rescuers flew overhead and made radio contact, but were unable to land in the stormy night.  Luckily, the next morning was clear enough for a helicopter to hover above the trees and drop a ladder to the cosmonauts.  The reentry vehicle survived the fly again.

Communist bureaucracy showed its face most clearly after the last great Soyuz landing mishap, which happened in October 1976.  This time Soyuz 23 strayed off course and landed in Kazakhstan’s Lake Tengiz.  It was another night when rescue helicopters were no match for the Soviet elements—temperatures of seven below zero, the lake enveloped in thick fog.  The reentry capsule floated, but the sinking parachute turned it upside down, its exit hatch sunk in the half-frozen water.  Ice quickly covered the ship’s air vent, leaving cosmonauts Vyacheslav Zudov and Valery Rozhdestvensky depending on a backup oxygen supply to stay alive.

Suddenly there was a knock at the cabin window.  One of the rescuers, a Captain Chernyavsky, had taken up the search himself in a rubber raft.  How he found the spacecraft three miles from shore in that fog is an abiding mystery of Russian space lore.  He probably saved the crew’s life by clearing off the ventilator until choppers and frogmen fished them out in the morning.  According to Russian space historian Geli Salahuddinov, Chernyavsky was fired for his unapproved initiative.  Furious cosmonauts got him reinstated.

The Soyuz TM-26 crew that landed safely near here today is well versed in this history, and presumably is content with Kustanai’s low-key hospitality, happy just to be back.  In fact, the city fathers have turned out quite a crowd—replete with doe-eyed Kazakh maidens in native costume, sweetly bearing trays of bread and salt, traditional greeting gifts—by the time Mikhalishev comes whooshing up in his rescue helicopter a little after 2 p.m.

Anatoly Solovyev does his best to return the courtesy, staggering down the steps from the helicopter with a rescuer gripping each arm.  He flops down on a bench, peering from a hooded sweatshirt with a look that seems a combination of extreme nausea and childlike wonder.  But he gathers enough strength to lurch inside the airport, where Kustanai’s mayor drapes a medal around his neck.  Then the rescuers carry Solovyev out and everyone rushes for the Moscow-bound airplane.  Anatoly Mikhalishev opens the window of his Mi-8 cockpit and looks on with a haggard grin.

The happiest man on the flight home is Nikolai Krayev, the strapping young blond rescuer who opened the hatch and pulled Tolya and Pasha to safety out on the raging steppe.  Swigging vodka from a Coke bottle, he indulges in some well-deserved boasting.  “These were extreme conditions,” Krayev enthuses.  “Write that down: e-x-t-r-e-m-e.  Visibility was zero.  That means nil.”

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