The Russians had held an advantage over the United States in many aspects of the “space race”: the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin, first full day in space - Gherman Titov, first simultaneous flight of two manned craft, first woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova, first spacewalk - Alexei Leonov and the first multi-person craft (Voshkod 1), of which Komarov had been the command pilot.
The inaugural Soyuz flight was very much part of the Russian lunar programme and was the first manned spaceflight in over two years. The mission was certainly challenging: the Russians planned to launch Soyuz 1 with Komarov inside. A second rocket with two additional cosmonauts would blast off the next day, dock with Soyuz 1 and Komarov would crawl from one to the other and come home in the second craft.
Three tests in the lead up to the launch had failed (the third being an abort that triggered a launchpad explosion). In addition, a staggering 203 structural problems were found with the Soyuz craft, but political pressure not only from the need to “beat” the Americans, but also a planned celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Communist revolution meant that the mission would go ahead, irrespective of the potential problems with the craft and the consequent risk to Komarov himself.
Komarov’s back-up pilot was Gagarin himself. The two were close friends and a month before the flight, Komarov told a demoted KGB agent (named Venyamin Russayev) that he knew he would not return alive. When asked why he didn’t just refuse to go, Komarov explained that the back-up pilot would just be sent in his place and he wasn’t prepared to let his friend Gagarin die...
The launch went ahead as planned, but the flight was beset with problems. With power and navigation issues, Komarov was already in a perilous situation, but when the following day’s launch was cancelled, his fate was almost certainly sealed. On this day in 1967 (just three months after the Apollo I launchpad fire that killed three American astronauts), Vladimir Komarov perished when his craft’s parachutes failed to open. A back-up parachute then became entangled with a small canopy and Soyuz 1 basically crash landed with the force of a meteorite.
Amazingly, US intelligence picked up Komarov’s cries of rage as the craft plunged to earth as well as a conversation with former leader Alexei Kosygin. My Russian isn’t particularly good (actually it’s non-existent), but seemingly Komarov (the first man to be killed in a spaceflight) was cursing the “people who had put him in a botched spaceship”. His charred remains were displayed prior to a state funeral, but the death of Komarov, as well as Grissom, White and Chaffee just a few weeks earlier highlighted just how
expendable these brave pioneers actually were, no more than pawns in a game of outer space chess.
This blog therefore salutes the selfless courage of Vladimir Komarov (1927-1967)