In the dark expanse of space, a ship orbited alone, just one of the two vessels that were meant to rendezvous and change cosmonauts. Vladimir Komarov, a good friend of Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) had gone into the mission knowing his bleak chances.
Inside a Soyuz capsule – the Soviet equivalent of NASA’s Gemini – he was making history. He was, in a perfect universe, tasked with meeting up with another ship which was supposed to leave Earth’s atmosphere a day later on April 24th, 1967 carrying Valery Bykovsky, Aleksei Yeliseev, and Yevgeny Khrunov. They would dock, and Komarov would change places with another cosmonaut via a spacewalk and both vessels would return back to Earth.
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Instead, he found himself in peril. Uncrewed tests of the spacecraft and engineering reports had shown around 203 issues that would kill any pilot. Many, Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin included, wanted to postpone the mission. They fought with engineers for more than three years about these safety issues.
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However, communist leader Leonid Brezhnev wanted the mission to coincide with the National Day of Worker Solidarity, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Communist Party. Since the success of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet Union was salivating for more victories in space. Brezhnev’s clout won out and it’s reported no one would stand up and challenge him.
Unless you accept another account, told largely by KBG officer Venyamin Ivanovich Russayev and Yaroslav Golovanov, a journalist for Pravda (or Truth) who interviewed Gagarin right after Komarov’s demise. Pravda was the official news source of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Their accounts are tied together and told in a book called Starman, published in 2011 by Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran.
There had been updates to the book after historians questioned certain instances, but the integrity of the book stands on a few things. Russayev was found by the authors through a very close source to Yuri Gagarin himself. A lot of the book stands against scrutiny, but given Russia’s tendency to hide, change, or outright not keep certain records makes the lines a little bit blurry.
In the version told by the press at the time and the KGB agent Russayev, the cosmonaut’s friend Yuri Gagarin wrote a ten-page memo with multiple other astronauts that he sent up the ladder stating that he didn’t think the ship was in any condition to take his friend into space. Gagarin was the defacto ‘backup’ just in case Komarov couldn’t make it into space for whatever reason. Some say Komarov insisted on going to keep his friend from heading into the danger himself. Others say that Gagarin was in fact only the backup in name; he was such a hero to the Soviet Union at that point that he was precious to their public image. They could not risk losing him.
Either way, it’s clear from any account that Gagarin was wholly against this mission. But Komarov would not back down. NPR goes into detail about a conversation between Komarov and Russayev in a piece written right before Starman’s release:
[Komarov] met with Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, and said, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.”
Russayev asked, Why not refuse? According to the authors, Komarov answered: “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead.” That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn’t do that to his friend. “That’s Yura,” the book quotes him saying, “and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.” Komarov then burst into tears.
On launch day, April 23, 1967, a Russian journalist, Yaroslav Golovanov, reported that Gagarin showed up at the launch site and demanded to be put into a spacesuit, though no one was expecting him to fly. Golovanov called this behavior “a sudden caprice,” though afterward some observers thought Gagarin was trying to muscle onto the flight to save his friend. The Soyuz left Earth with Komarov on board.
Listening from a base in Istanbul, Turkey, US intelligence recorded as things started to go wrong for the cosmonaut. You can hear the start of the problems here:
Translators can’t make out everything. “The Heat is rising in the capsule…kill…” Much is garbled. There may have been some other sound sources and more to hear, says historian Asif Siddiqi, but many people, including Bizony, think that any transcripts of this event can hardly be trusted. The Soviet Union had a face to save.
First, two solar panels did not deploy. This messed with Soyuz’s navigation and communication equipment. Thermal control systems failed and Soyuz began to spin. On his 19th orbit of the Earth, with his communication systems barely working, Komarov re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. He released the main chute, but nothing deployed. The reserve chute deployed but was tangled. He plummeted to Earth and was turned into a molten heap upon impact.
The Soviet Union could only find a chipped heel bone by the time it was all said and done. He had been obliterated. If we are to believe what is told us, Komarov screamed “This devil ship! Nothing I lay my hands on works properly,” and his vehemence was met with tears on the other end. There is no way to prove he had contact with anyone else at this point, but it is reported he cursed his whole way down.
We do know that Gagarin was bereft at his death, and gave a scathing interview against the engineers and officials who pushed his best friend into a suicide mission that ended in a frightful, fast-paced descent into oblivion.
Gagarin had been permanently removed from training or participating in future spaceflights after the Soyuz’s crash.
How this tragedy unfolded is up for debate, especially where certain cosmonaut’s feeling and perceptions are involved. But due to the duplicity of Soviet record-keeping, eyewitness or first-hand accounts are seen as reliable as any other source we have.
We know a few things for sure: Gagarin and Komarov were friends, Gagarin was shattered when his friend died, and that Komarov went down in the Soyuz in a fiery crash in large part because the parachutes did not work. His loss was unfortunate, but not surprising in a time of public pressure for space exploration. We’ve lost quite a few to the call of the final frontier – all of whom should be remembered for their adventurous spirit and tenacity.