Komarov in Germany in 1965. Image: Getty Images/ ullstein bild

The Martyr of Modern Spaceflight

Vladimir Komarov was the first human to die during a spaceflight. His death, 50 years ago today, led to the creation of the most reliable spacecraft in operation.

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Apr 24 2017, 1:00pm

Komarov in Germany in 1965. Image: Getty Images/ ullstein bild

It was early Monday morning on April 24, 1967, and the flight control staff at the Soviet NIP-16 ground station in Yevpatoria, Crimea hadn't slept since Saturday. Flying 200 kilometers above them, in low Earth orbit, cosmonaut Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov was attempting to pilot his dangerously faulty spacecraft, Soyuz 1, safely back to Earth.

Since its launch 24 hours earlier, the mission had deteriorated into a series of disasters. The spacecraft's left solar array failed to unfurl, robbing Soyuz 1 of power and throwing it off-balance, which disrupted its spin-stabilization. The 45K Sun-star sensor, a crucial orientation tool, was subsequently blocked from deployment under the jammed array.

Roscosmos' memorial tribute to Komarov. Video: Телестудия Роскосмоса/YouTube

Needless to say, Komarov was no more rested than his colleagues on the ground.

"Komarov had long since grasped the complexity of the situation," recalled Soviet rocket designer Boris Chertok, who was at the Yevpatoria station that day, in his memoir Rockets and People. "Now his own composure and faultless actions, rather than automatic controls, would determine his return from space."

Komarov understood that the stakes were high and the room for error was low. His extensive flight experience was what led to his selection as the sole crew member of Soyuz 1, which was supposed to herald the Soviet Union's triumphant return to crewed spaceflight after two years of delay.

Celebratory stamp depicting Komarov as commander of Voskhod 1. Image: Russian Federation

Meanwhile, NASA had turned up the pressure. During the Soviets' lapse, the Americans accomplished an impressive ten crewed spaceflights with the Gemini program. This prompted cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, to call out Soviet leadership for its lack of vision on manned exploration, relative to the United States.

"It is a shame that in our country, which was the first to [send] man into outer space, for four years the question has been debated whether man is needed on board a military spacecraft," said Gagarin and select cosmonauts in a 1965 letter to USSR general secretary Leonid Brezhnev, according to a Russian-to-English translation. "In America, this question has been resolved firmly and conclusively in favor of man."

Soyuz 1 was designed to show that the Soviets were back in the game with a sophisticated manned flagship, and to raise the stakes by successfully executing a docking maneuver, a crucial step toward sending cosmonauts to the Moon. This plan was hinted at in the mission's name: Soyuz, meaning "Union," which prompted many analysts to correctly guess that there was a Soyuz 2 waiting for the green light to launch and meet with Komarov's vessel.

Read More: Heat and Ashes: The Untold Story of the Apollo 1 Fire

But by the time Soyuz 1 had circled Earth a dozen times, revealing its perilous mechanical issues—including defective power systems and orientation malfunctions—Soyuz 2 and its crew of three cosmonauts had been grounded, and Komarov received the go-ahead to abort his mission and attempt an emergency landing.

"The cosmonauts had not trained for this landing scenario," Chertok said in his memoir. "We devised it out of desperation after the 16th orbit. But Komarov not only understood everything, he also executed it exactly." 

After 26 adrenaline-ridden hours in space and on the ground, Komarov was last heard reporting that he had issued the "Emergency-2" command and that spacecraft separation had occurred in preparation for reentry into Earth's atmosphere. According to the flight transcript, he told ground control not to worry, that he felt great, and he thanked them all for their work.

"They shouldn't have launched him at all, but they did, because they were under intense political pressure to do this mission."

Chertok and the rest of the Crimea-based flight control staff, including Gagarin, were eventually informed that the descent module had been spotted east of Orsk in southern Russia. Relieved and exhausted, they took a long-overdue break, and rehashed the insanity of the flight.

Gagarin, famous for his gregarious personality, joked around with the rest of the ground staff, until he was requested for an urgent call. When he returned, his smile had vanished.

"I've been ordered to leave immediately for Orsk," Gagarin said, according to Chertok. "The landing was off-nominal. That's all I know."

By the end of that day, exactly 50 years ago, the whole world would know: Soyuz 1 had explosively crashed, and all that remained of Komarov was charred bones.

*

A lot had been standing in the way of Komarov's dream to become a cosmonaut. His quick rise through the ranks in the Soviet Air Forces, coupled with his engineering background, earned him a spot in the first elite group of 20 cosmonaut candidates, known as Air Force Group One. But soon after his selection in 1960, at age 32, he suffered a ruptured hernia that put him out of commission for six months. Later, in 1962, he was fully cut from training after he was diagnosed with a heart murmur.

Komarov did not let these health problems sink his ambitions, and repeatedly asked to be reinstated. That he was extremely well-liked and respected among his peers helped his case.

Komarov and fellow cosmonaut Alexey Leonov in 1960. Image: Getty Images/ ullstein bild

"He was one of the oldest in our group; he was already an engineer when he joined us, but he never looked down on the others," said fellow Air Force Group One member and cosmonaut Pavel Popovich, as quoted in the history Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon by Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan.

"He was warm-hearted, purposeful, and industrious," Popovich recalled. "Volodya's [diminutive of Vladimir] prestige was so high that people came to him to discuss all questions: personal as well as questions of our work."

In February 1963, Komarov was readmitted for training as part of cosmonaut Group 2, along with Valery Bykovsky and Boris Volynov. The following year, he traveled to space at last, as the commander of Voskhod 1, the first vessel to carry multiple people into orbit, prompting The New York Times to call him "prob­ably the world's only astro­naut with a heart murmur." (Mercury Seven astronaut Deke Slayton, who was grounded for the same heart condition, wasn't cleared by NASA for spaceflight until 1972.)

During this period, Komarov lived with his wife Valentina Yakovlevna Komarova and their two children, Yevgeny and Irina, in "closed townlet number one," a military community about 30 miles (45 kilometers) east of Moscow where cosmonaut training took place. The town has since become known as Star City (Zvyozdny Gorodok). While based there, he developed many close friendships with fellow cosmonauts, including Gagarin, who was eventually selected as Komarov's backup for Soyuz 1.

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Komarov's official assignment to Soyuz 1 in late 1966 should have been a cause for celebration. Commanding the maiden flight of a much-anticipated spacecraft was an honor, and it would distinguish him as the first cosmonaut with two spaceflights under his belt.

But as the launch date approached, the mood became tense in Star City after three test flights of the unmanned Soyuz failed, revealing dozens of problems with its architecture. In the blunt view of the quality assurance inspectors, the spacecraft was "a piece of shit," as quoted by Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training, in his diary.

Along with chronic coordination problems, fuel and power losses, and launchpad explosions, which had killed one of the Baikonur ground employees in December 1966, the most ominous issue noted in Kamanin's notes was the repeated failure of the parachutes to perform properly. Soviet leaders, however, were hungry for major victories to celebrate for the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution in 1967, and set tight deadlines for the next manned missions.

"Cosmonauts, in Soviet culture, were not people with very much power. Everybody basically bossed them around."

The sense of dread intensified on January 27, 1967, when NASA's Apollo 1 spacecraft—the flagship of America's bold Moon shot—caught fire on the launchpad, killing its three-person crew.

"We were all shaken by the news of the death of the three American astronauts Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee," Chertok recalls. "The American tragedy prompted the development of additional safety measures," which were to be implemented before the next piloted launch.

Of course, Komarov was cognizant that his life was at stake, and the Apollo 1 disaster may have reinforced his fears. But according to Asif Siddiqi, a space historian based at Fordham University and the author of several books on Russian science history, Komarov had a strong sense of military duty, and remained committed to the mission.

"If you're going to fly the fourth [Soyuz], and the other three failed, well, I'm sure he was worried," Siddiqi told me over the phone. "It's clear he was a highly skilled cosmonaut, so he knew the risks. He understood that this was part of the profession he signed up for."

Ultimately, he may have viewed his destiny as beyond his control.

"He wasn't necessarily in a position to challenge anyone," Siddiqi continued. "Cosmonauts, in Soviet culture, were not people with very much power. Everybody basically bossed them around."

Komarov was rumoured to have been painfully aware of his impending death, and resentful toward the leaders who forced him into the doomed Soyuz 1. Some say he sacrificed himself to save Gagarin, his close friend and an international hero, who would have been the one to die if Komarov had refused to fly (or so the story goes).

A famous and disputed account in the 2011 history Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, by Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran, claims that American radio outposts in Turkey "intercepted [Komarov's] cries of rage and frustration as he plunged to his death, cursing forever the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship." This story began to circulate in the 1970s, and was mentioned in the 1988 book Uncovering Soviet Disasters, by renowned American space historian James Oberg, who doubted the authenticity of the rumor.

Here's what we know about Komarov's final moments: He was on track for a normal landing when Soyuz 1's drogue parachute deployed. This initial release was designed to slow the descent and tug the main parachute from its cannister. For reasons that remain unresolved, the drogue failed to trigger the second chute.

Komarov quickly recognized this and manually activated the backup parachute, which became entangled with the drogue, rendering both devices useless in decelerating the craft. Komarov was left hurtling toward the ground at 40 meters per second. He was killed instantly on impact. There's no official evidence that he achieved radio contact with anyone after the descent module separated, which was normal for Soviet missions.

This particular design flaw in the parachutes was completely unexpected. But people in the immediate aftermath of the accident, and even now 50 years later, have trouble accepting the story that this brilliant cosmonaut was killed by a freak accident.

There's a hunger for alternate endings. Some say Komarov bid a sorrowful farewell to his wife Valentina, despite the fact that she was at home, not a control station, at the time. Some say Komarov's last words are full of retribution and fury, condemning the "devil ship" Soyuz 1, and validating the archetype that Soviet leaders placed more value on global prestige than their own citizens' lives.

Speculation to this effect is still common today and can be found "all over the internet," Siddiqi told me, but there's no evidence to verify these accounts. "It would make a better story if [Komarov] were screaming and crying, but the real story is that he went up there, he tried his best, and was killed because of an engineering culture that took risks."

"They shouldn't have launched him at all, but they did, because they were under intense political pressure to do this mission," he said.

Indeed, Komarov's calm words of assurance in the flight transcript, which was obtained by Siddiqi and MIT science historian Slava Gerovitch in 2011, suggest that he did not expect to be thrown yet another curveball before landing.

But because the Soviet space program was so notorious for withholding information, the official account of events is inevitably challenged. Case in point: Gagarin's tragic death in a jet airplane crash one year later, in 1968, has also generated an abundance of speculation, including conspiracy theories that Brezhnev had Gagarin assassinated.

Gagarin (left) and Komarov (right), in 1964. Image: Getty Images / ullstein bild

"The paranoid level of secrecy surrounding the program makes all sorts of speculation possible," Siddiqi told me. "If you lived in the Soviet Union, you didn't believe what you read in Pravda. You had to create narratives that make sense of the world, and one way to make sense of Komarov's death was that he was an upstanding individual who was a victim of the system."

"In a way, he was," he added. "Those [rumors] fit nicely into this narrative of the heartless communists sacrificing their cosmonauts for their own glory."

It seems tragically significant that Apollo 1 and Soyuz 1, the inaugural missions of the two space rivals' ambitious new programs, ended with crew fatalities. The pace of space development at that time was reckless, and while the men who paid the price—astronauts and cosmonauts—understood the dangers of their vocation, these deaths remain a painful reminder of the costs.

In each nation, those who survived became even more committed to achieving the spaceflight victories that these men had sacrificed their lives to pursue. For Apollo, that meant conquering the Moon. But Soyuz, too, would regain its standing in space history to become a cornerstone of off-Earth travel.

*

Komarov's ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in Moscow's Red Square on April 26, 1967. He was a native Muscovite, and tens of thousands of people attended his state funeral, including his bereaved wife and two children, then ages 15 and 8. Komarov's father eulogized his son who, as a little boy, had spent countless hours on the rooftop memorizing the bombers, fighters, and other aircraft that flew overhead.

"He understood that in exploring a new field of human endeavor, casualties are inevitable among the trailblazers," the elder Komarov said, according to Chertok's account. "Volodya loved his parents, loved his country, but he had to fly. He died for a worthy cause, sparing the lives of others following him."

Valentina Komarova kissing her husband's picture at his funeral on April 26, 1967. Image: Getty Images/AFP

These words turned out to be prophetic. The loss of the beloved cosmonaut marked the first time any human had been killed during a spaceflight. It sparked an exhaustive investigation into the Soyuz spacecraft's flaws, and an overhaul of its faulty designs, including the parachute system. "His ashes would haunt us until we unraveled the true cause of the disaster," Chertok said.

Instead of revitalizing the Soviet crewed program, Soyuz 1 resulted in its suspension for nearly two years as the damage was hashed out. It did not resume until the successful flight and docking of Soyuz 4 and 5 in January 1969. By this point, docking in space was old news to NASA, and in July of that year, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the Moon.

Komarov's death dashed the Soviets' hopes of ever catching up with NASA in the race to land a man on the Moon. The program was delivered another major blow when the Soyuz 11 capsule, launched in 1971, depressurized in space, killing the three-person crew, and sparking more scandals and investigations.

Even if Komarov had lived, the Soviets would probably not have beat the Apollo program to the Moon. Soyuz 1 simply drove this reality home. But the demise of the Russian Moon shot stimulated new ideas about how to leverage the nation's considerable spaceflight infrastructure and intellectual capital into accomplishing other milestones in space. The redemption of the Soyuz would be central to this new direction.

The Fallen Astronaut memorial on the Moon, which includes Komarov and Gagarin's names, placed there Apollo 15 astronauts. Image: NASA

Fifty years on, the Soyuz is still flying. Since those two fatal accidents, the spacecraft has never lost a passenger. When NASA's Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the Soyuz became the sole spacecraft capable of delivering astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and there are no plans to replace it anytime soon.

"Since 1971, knock on wood, nobody has died in a Soyuz," Siddiqi told me. "That's a pretty good record. Those two accidents were critical in making the Soyuz a better spacecraft."

The trauma of losing our heros often leads people to search for a grander meaning in their deaths. Many Americans have come to regard the sacrifice of the Apollo 1 astronauts as a major contributor toward the historical achievement of the Apollo Moon landings, for instance.

The Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft, in 2005. Image: Wikicommons

A similar narrative has arisen around Komarov's sacrifice, which undoubtedly forced the Soviet space program to finally address its own dysfunction. Today, the Apollo vehicles are long retired and the Soyuz is the backbone of all modern crewed space exploration. No matter what country ISS astronauts come from, they train to use the Soyuz in Star City, just like Komarov did. The spacecraft may have been his tomb, but a half-century later, it is our trusty gateway to the great frontier beyond Earth.

As Chertok put it in his memoirs: "Everyone who has safely flown, is flying; and those who will fly into space on a Soyuz should remember that they owe their reliable and safe return to the ground not only to the creators of that spacecraft, but also to Vladimir Komarov."

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