Space holds a vast amount of mysteries and anonymity, which the human race is constantly trying to explore. It has attracted human interest for decades. From leaving footprints on the Moon to India’s very own Mars Mission, these success stories have made the human kind proud and have encouraged further research and exploration into space. But, rarely do we think of the events preceding such achievements; the events where human efforts failed miserably.
One such tragic and horrific incident in space is that of the death of USSR cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, a close friend of Yuri Gagarin (the first man to reach outer space). Some historians believe that Komarov was sent to space in a craft that the officials knew could never return!
The story begins around 1967. On the account of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, decided to organize an impressive and spectacular mid-space meeting between two Soviet spaceships.
The plan was to launch a space vehicle, Soyuz 1, with one cosmonaut inside. The next day, another vehicle would be sent into space, with two additional cosmonauts. Once in space, the two vehicles would meet and dock, and the cosmonaut from Soyuz 1 would crawl to the second vehicle. He would exchange places with a colleague, and come back in the second ship. Brezhnev made it clear that he wanted this to happen.
Doomed From The Start
The problem was that it was beyond the capability of Soyuz at that time. Many engineers and cosmonauts doubted its safety. Unmanned test flights revealed serious problems and failures. They were convinced that the Soyuz won’t be ready in time. But, Brezhnev didn’t want the plan to delay. He was adamant for a launch on April 23, 1967.
On April 20, 1967, Vladimir Komarov, was selected to command the Soyuz 1, with Yuri Gagarin as his backup cosmonaut. Both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. But, Komarov wouldn’t back out. If he refused, the USSR would strip him of his military honors and send Gagarin instead. He couldn’t send his close friend and a national hero to death.
On inspection of the Soyuz 1 by some senior technicians, it was found that the craft had 203 structural problems that would make it dangerous to navigate in space. The mission, Gagarin suggested, should be postponed. He wrote a 10-page memo outlining the dangers and arguing for the mission’s cancellation. He gave the memo to his friend in KGB (then security agency for the Soviet Union). However, nobody dared to send the report up the order. Apparently, everyone willing to stop the mission was ignored, demoted or fired.
Despite his efforts, the mission went off as planned and eight minutes later Vladimir Komarov was in the orbit, operating one of the most sophisticated spacecraft ever launched.
Once the Soyuz began to orbit the Earth, the failures began. Antennas refused to open and the navigation systems failed. It was running dangerously low on fuel. The spacecraft started spinning and Komarov was unable to control its attitude. Seeing all these problems, the launch of Soyuz 2 was abandoned, and it was decided to bring Komarov safely back to Earth at the first available opportunity.
However, when the capsule set to re-enter the Earth, the parachutes failed to open. At this time, little could be done to save Komarov. He was convinced that he won’t be able to make it back safely. As Komarov headed to his doom, US listening posts in Turkey heard him crying in rage. He was cursing the people who played a role in his death.
The Soyuz 1 crashed full speed into Earth, with a force of a 2.8-ton meteorite. The capsule was flattened under the force and his body turned molten on impact.
The Final Goodbye
Vladimir Komarov was given an open-casket, state funeral with full military honors. His charred remains were uncovered and displayed. The only recognizable part of his body was his heel bone. Weeks after the crash, Yuri Gagarin, in an interview, sharply criticized the officials who had let his friend fly.
Unfortunately, the man he was trying to save, Yuri Gagarin, passed away in a plane accident, only two years after the incident in 1969.
Nonetheless, Komarov is widely regarded as a hero who met a needlessly horrific death. In the history of mankind’s journey to space, Vladimir Komarov’s name is written in bold, and will always be remembered.