April 24, 1967: The Death of Vladmir Mikhaylovich Komarov


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


Vladmie Mikhaylovich Komarov was a Soviet test pilot, aerospace engineer and cosmonaut. In October of 1964, he became the commander of the first spaceflight to carry more than 1 crew member.


He was then selected as the solo pilot of Soyuz 1, but died after a parachute failure caused the capsule to crash into the ground on reentry, making him the first human to die in a space flight.


Komarov was highly experienced and was known for his perseverance, superior skills and second-to-none engineering knowledge. He made contributions to space vehicle design, cosmonaut training, and public relations.

THE SPACE RACE, AND A DOOMED MISSION (2)


In the 1960s, the space race was heating up and becoming a "dangerous contest of egos, ambitions and political posturing". The USSR had been victorious over the US a few times before, with the first satellite to transcend Earth's orbit in 197, and putting the first human in space in 1961.


But along with the USSR's triumphs over the US, they would soon land another place in Space Race history: The first space-flight fatality. Though astronauts had been lost before, namely 3 astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 ground test, no one had died on a space mission... Yet.


By 1967, both the US and USSR had sent men to space, they had both orbited Earth for multiple days, and they both had set their sights on a moon landing. The Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, wanted a big celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and thus, they planned to launch 2 spaceships: The Soyuz 1, and the Soyuz 2. The Soyuz 1 would be manned by Komarov, and Soyuz 2 would follow with 2 cosmonauts. They'd rendezvous, dock, exchange crew members, and head home. Though not a planned lunar mission, they anticipated they would eventually use the Soyuz mission for the moon.


But from the get to, there were issues. And, like all space articles I write, I don't exactly know what those issues are, but I'll try to explain them. Essentially, the hatch to get into the ship was too small to accommodate a fully-suited cosmonaut. An additional 203 problems were found with the ship, but no one wanted to tell Brezhnev that his 50th anniversary celebration was not going according to plan, and postponing would make it look like the USSR was not up for the task. (Which, they weren't.)


Komarov was close friends with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Gagarin was the back-up for the mission, and if Komarov backed out, Gagarin would be tapped in, and he wouldn't allow his friend to die in the mission.


Allegedly, he told Gagarin he had doubts about the mission, saying: "I'm not going to make it back from this flight." Further, Gagarin may have been the author of the memo that detailed the 203 problems, and his minder who passed the memo up the food chain was demoted and sent to a remote outpost. In fact, anyone who came in contact with the memo was in some way punished for their involvement.


So, everybody, including Komarov, knew the flight was doomed, but he had to go anyway.

THE FLIGHT


On April 23, 1967, Vladmir Komarov was set to board Soyuz 1, knowing about all of the problems with the shuttle, but choosing to go anyway. Though fellow cosmonauts cheered him on, allegedly, Gagarin showed up and created a fuss as a last ditch effort to save his friend. It didn't work. His steps leading to the shuttle were the last he would take on Earth.


Almost immediately after liftoff, things were bad. A solar panel failed to deploy, which limited power and obscured navigation. Communication with the ground broke down, and the ship begun spinning out. On the ground, commanders decided to halt Soyuz 2, and attempt to safely bring Komarov home.


He circled the Earth for hours, attempting to navigate without adequate equipment or the option to contact ground control. He sent distressed calls where he cursed and raged. He cursed all of the people who put him in the doomed mission. His wife talked to him, asking him what he would like to say to his children. Finally, in the midst of circling the Earth endlessly, on his 19th time around, he thought he could safely reenter.


But, as the craft descended, the parachute failed to deploy. With no navigation, minimal contact and in the most panicked state of mind imaginable, Komarov figured out how to reenter the Earth's atmosphere. And he died because the parachute was tangled. His screams were recorded as he plunged toward the Earth in flames.


The Soyuz 1 slammed into the Earth at 7 AM on April 24, killing Komarov instantly. The only thing left behind was his charred body.


Gagarin was devastated by the loss of his friend. Komarov was only 40 years old, and left behind a wife and children. He was honored with a state funeral in Moscow and was posthumously awarded with various honors, and widely regarded as a hero.


Before the mission, he had requested an open casket funeral, knowing he would likely die. You can see what was left of him in the cover image of this article, "a grim reminder of the dangers of early space travel". A gruesome, terrifying death that didn't need to happen.


There is a lot of death and terror in space travel. I wrote about men who died during a standard ground test, the heartbreaking deaths from the Challenger explosion, and the terrifying but miraculous survival of those on Apollo 13. And one thing that is in common with many of those, and other space accidents, is that somebody knew it was dangerous. Perhaps it was a failure to communicate the dangers, a misunderstanding of the risks or sometimes, a complete overlook of serious problems, but in too many cases, it was prior knowledge of a dangerous element ignored to meet deadlines.


This is one of the worst ones. Everyone knew it was doomed. Komarov discussed his funeral before takeoff. People were demoted and sent away for interfering or expressing concerns. Komarov only boarded the mission to save his friend and Soviet hero. He took off, and nearly everyone knew he wasn't going to come back down alive. But postponing wasn't an option. I guess a senseless death was better press than postponing.


I read a post on r/shortscarystories on Reddit that was about an astronaut who overcame every problem in a doomed spacecraft and safely reentered the Earth's atmosphere, only to die from a parachute that didn't deploy. In the comments, the author explained that actually did happen: Vladmir Komarov. Though he wasn't exactly home free before the parachute failure, he may have thought his life was saved, only to die because of something so stupid. Since I read that, I think about this story often, and hope it is as interesting to you as it was to me.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Komarov#Soyuz_1

2. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/02/11/man-who-fell-from-space-2/


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