Once Pasha was sure the hatch was closed and the pressure had equalized, he triggered the inner hatch open and I scrambled back into the spacecraft, drenched with sweat, my heart racing.
The serious problems I had experienced when reentering the spacecraft were, thankfully, not televised. From the moment our mission looked to be in jeopardy, transmissions from our spacecraft, which had been broadcast on both radio and television, were suddenly suspended without explanation. In their place Mozart’s Requiem was played again and again on state radio. My family was therefore spared the anxiety they would have had to endure had they known how close I came to being stranded in space. They were also spared the trauma they would have suffered had they known the grave danger that Pasha and I faced in the hours that followed. For the difficulties I experienced reentering the spacecraft were just the start of a series of dire emergencies that almost cost us our lives.
Just five minutes before our retro-engine was due to start dropping us out of orbit, I checked our instruments and realized our automatic guidance system for reentry was not functioning correctly. We would have to switch off the automatic landing program. This meant we would have to orient the spacecraft before reentry manually, and would also have to select our landing point manually and decide on the exact timing and duration of the retro-rocket firing. We knew our landing would have to be performed during our next orbit and that, despite our best efforts, we would be coming down off-target—1,500 kilometers [930 miles] west of where we were supposed to land.
As our orbit brought us above the Crimea, we received the first ground control communication we’d had in some time. “How are you, Blondie? Where did you land?” It was Yuri Gagarin; he always called me “Blondie.” It was good to hear his voice. Even in such difficult circumstances he sounded full of warmth, even relaxed. But from what he was saying, it was clear mission control thought we had already landed.
Pasha clicked on his microphone. “We had to turn off the automatic landing system. We have only enough fuel to do one correction, and besides that, the indicator shows that the main engine for reentry is very low on fuel,” Pasha reported in as steady a voice as he could. “We can make only one attempt at reentry. We are asking you therefore to go into emergency mode.”
It was my job, as navigator, to determine where we would land. Our orbit would take us right over Moscow; we could set down in Red Square. But we had to choose somewhere as sparsely populated as possible. I decided on an area close to the city of Perm, just west of the Ural Mountains. Even if I miscalculated and our orbit took us beyond Perm, we should still be able to land in Soviet territory. We could not run the risk of overshooting so much that we came down in China; relations with the People’s Republic were poor at the time.
Pasha began orienting the craft for reentry. This was no easy task—in order to use the optical device necessary for orientation, he had to lean horizontally across both seats in the spacecraft, while I held him steady in front of the orientation porthole. We then had to maneuver ourselves back into the correct positions in our seats very rapidly so that the spacecraft’s center of gravity was correct during the reentry burn. As soon as Pasha turned on the engines we heard them roar and felt a strong jerk as they slowed our craft. According to the flight schedule, our landing module would separate from the orbital module 10 seconds after retro-fire. I counted the seconds down in my head.
But something was very wrong. It felt as if we were being dragged from behind, as if something was pulling us back. When we began to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere, we started to feel gravity pulling us in the opposite direction. The conflicting forces—my instruments indicated 10 Gs—were so strong that some of the small blood vessels in our eyes burst. Looking out my window, I realized with horror what was happening. A communication cable connected the landing module with the orbital module, and as we rapidly entered the denser Earth atmosphere, the cable had become the two modules’ common center of gravity, and we were spinning around it.
The spinning eventually stopped at an altitude of about 100 kilometers, when the connecting cable burnt through and our landing module slipped free. Then we felt a sharp jolt as first the drogue chute and then the landing chute deployed. Everything became very peaceful, very calm. We could hear and feel the wind whistling in the straps as the module swung gently on the landing chute.
Suddenly everything became dark. We had entered cloud cover. Then it grew even darker. I started to worry that we had dropped into a deep gorge. There was a roaring as our landing engine ignited just above the ground to break the speed of our descent. Finally we felt our spacecraft slumping to a halt. We had landed in two meters of thick snow.
Our orientation system indicated that we had landed 2,000 kilometers beyond Perm, in deepest Siberia. “How soon do you think they’ll pick us up?” Pasha asked me, concerned, as the landing module shuddered to a standstill.
I tried to make light of our situation. “In three months, maybe, they’ll find us with dog sleighs.”