The Man Who Fell From Space
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because space exploration is a risky venture with some devastating consequences.
By Sean Braswell
- Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when his Soyuz 1 descent module crashed on April 24, 1967.
- The tragedy contributed to setbacks in the Soviet space program that allowed the United States to vault ahead in the race to the moon.
It was like a scene lifted straight from Brueghel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. As farm workers in Karabutak, a small village in the foothills of the southern Ural Mountains in Russia, took to their fields around sunrise on the morning of April 24, 1967, they witnessed a remarkable celestial sight in the clear spring skies. A large blackened object traveling at high speed smashed into the ground near the horizon with a loud explosion heard for miles.
This particular Icarus, 40-year-old cosmonaut and national hero Vladimir Komarov, was killed the moment his Soyuz 1 descent module slammed into the ground. The circumstances behind the crash remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, but the disaster’s significance was clear: The small crater left by the module in the Russian countryside paled in comparison to the impact that Komorav’s death — the first in-flight fatality in the history of human spaceflight — made in the Soviet Union’s progress and ambitions at a critical time in the nation’s space race with the United States.
The Soyuz 1 tragedy came just three months after the Apollo 1 incident that killed three American astronauts during a launch rehearsal. The Soviets were pursuing an ambitious flight schedule in an attempt to keep up with their American counterparts, designing spacecraft and rocketry for lunar landings, lunar flybys and earth orbiting. They hoped that 1967 — the 10th anniversary of the Sputnik triumph and the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution — would be a banner year for Soviet space travel. Increasingly anxious about losing the race to the moon to NASA, and hoping to capitalize on the Apollo 1 setback, top party brass, including leader Leonid Brezhnev, pressed hard for progress. “The [Soviet] designers faced immense political pressure for a new space spectacular,” says Francis French, author of In the Shadow of the Moon. “Soyuz was being rushed into service before all the problems had been ironed out.”
Soyuz was being rushed into service before all the problems had been ironed out.
Historian Francis French
The first manned Soyuz mission was planned for April 1967, when Soyuz 1 would rendezvous with Soyuz 2 in orbit before returning to Earth. Piloting Soyuz 1, the first into orbit, would be Vladimir Komarov, awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union after his first spaceflight in October 1964, and perhaps the most respected cosmonaut after Yuri Gagarin. But technical problems plagued the pre-launch period. Nine days before launch, more than 200 anomalies in various technical components, including attitude control and communications systems were identified. Top Soviet engineers expressed their concerns but nobody asked the Kremlin to delay the launch.
After bidding farewell to his wife, Valentina, Komarov and Soyuz 1 blasted into the dark skies above Russia around 3:00 a.m. Moscow time on April 23, 1967. Soyuz 2 was scheduled to do the same the following day. “Everything is fine,” Komarov could be heard saying as the vehicle sped over Central Asia. It soon became clear, however, that everything was not fine. The module’s left solar panel had failed to deploy. Komarov did everything he could, including kicking the wall of the spacecraft, to dislodge it. Without a working panel, the craft’s electrical power was effectively cut in half, scuttling the mission. As Komarov circled the Earth, Soviet engineers turned their attention to getting him home.
Even with a hampered electrical system, the calm and seasoned Komarov was able to manually orient his spacecraft to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere despite having never trained for such an eventuality. The Soyuz module rocketed toward the Earth. Soon the parachutes would deploy and the botched mission would end with Komarov cruising down into the central Russian countryside. But again the craft malfunctioned. Its large parachute failed to deploy, and a backup parachute got tangled. Soyuz 1 slammed into the ground near Karabutak, killing Komarov instantly. Locals threw buckets of dirt on the craft in a futile attempt to extinguish the flames.
According to one widely questioned account, U.S. radio outposts in Turkey intercepted Komarov’s cries of frustration to mission control, cursing the “devil ship” that was shuttling him to his death. But recordings of his final transmissions do not substantiate this account. “All reliable reports on Komarov’s final moments agree he was a professional pilot,” says French. “What killed him — a malfunctioning parachute system — was an automatic system he had no control over.”
The 47 American astronauts in Houston, Texas, sent a telegram of condolence to their Russian rivals. Yuri Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts were devastated by their colleague’s sudden demise, the Soviet’s first cosmonaut fatality. So was the nation. “The year 1967 was a significant turning point in Soviet cultural attitudes toward spaceflight,” says Slava Gerovitch, author of Voices of the Soviet Space Program, “from admiration and pride to grief, cynicism and, ultimately, indifference.”
The Soyuz 1 tragedy also dealt a blow to the Soviet space program, slowing its schedule of piloted launches and, along with the delays accompanying the development of the N1 lunar rocket, allowing America to win the race to the moon in 1969. America might have won anyway, but, says French, “it is possible to speculate that, if more time had been given to fixing Soyuz 1 before launch and the flight had been a perfect success, the Soviet Union could have looped humans around the moon before America.”
The crash of Soyuz 1 reminded the world yet again of the dangers of space travel. It was a risk that Komarov and his fellow cosmonauts knew all too well, and were willing to take. Gagarin himself summed it up best in the statement he issued after his friend’s death:
“Men have perished. But new ships have left their moorings, new aircraft have taxied to the takeoff strip, and new teams have gone off into the forest and the desert. … Nothing will stop us. The road to the stars is steep and dangerous. But we’re not afraid.”