Remembering the Crew of Soyuz 11, the Only Astronauts to Die in Space

Maria J. Danford

A seem of troubled uncertainty creased the man’s encounter. Kneeling beside him, a different member of the restoration staff also listened to the Soyuz 11 capsule, which had just landed next a document-breaking 23-day remain at the world’s very first house station. Times ahead of, both men were eagerly clamouring to greet the returning cosmonauts — Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev — whose fame swept Soviet Russia like a whirlwind in June 1971. But when they knocked on the capsule, they were met with only ominous silence.

The would-be rescuers opened the hatch to uncover a scene of indescribable horror. All a few cosmonauts lay dead in their seats, with blue splotches on their faces and blood trickling from their noses and ears. On June thirty, 1971, humankind was forced to grapple with the very first — and so significantly only — deaths to arise in house.

A Troubled Mission

From the outset, Soyuz 11 was an disappointed assignment. After Neil Armstrong’s historic very first techniques on the Moon, the Soviets nixed their own lunar landing programs in favor of an Earth-orbiting house station. Salyut 1 was introduced in April 1971, but it very first crew unsuccessful to dock with the station in the course of the Soyuz 10 mission. That meant it was up to Alexei Leonov (the world’s very first spacewalker), Valeri Kubasov, and Pyotr Kolodin to try out once again with Soyuz 11.

But a few times ahead of start, in the course of a program test, doctors found a inflammation on Kubasov’s appropriate lung. Fearing tuberculosis, the full crew was replaced by their backups. Kubasov’s inflammation turned out to be owing to a pollen allergy, but best brass unflinchingly stood by their conclusion. The cosmonauts were mad Kolodin returned to his area and obtained drunk, crying in rage and stress. However, it must have been no less complicated for the backup crew, who were now confronted with accomplishing the longest house mission ever attempted.

In his memoir Two Sides of the Moon, Leonov recalled the palpable perception of dread the astronauts felt. A eager artist, he did a pencil sketch of Patsayev the evening ahead of his start, dubbing it “Patsayev’s Eyes.” It was noticeable that the quiet mechanical engineer — a Renaissance person of the cosmonaut corps who liked literature and new music, and whose father died defending Moscow from Nazi Germany — was visibly troubled.

The replacement commander of Soyuz 11 was Dobrovolski, a fighter pilot and achieved parachutist. As a boy, his fingers were smashed by Nazi thugs as punishment for supplying ammunition and messages to resistance fighters. Several years later on, in the course of cosmonaut education in the isolation chamber, this devoted household person whiled absent the several hours by carving a small picket doll for his daughter.

Meanwhile, the energetic Volkov was the only 1 of the replacement crew who had flown ahead of. A proficient athlete and boxer, the wiry aeronautical engineer would also turn into the very first accredited journalist in house. And in the course of Soyuz 11, his rugged great appears to be manufactured him somewhat of a pinup icon for Russian females.

Manning a New Area Station

After launching on June six, 1971, Soyuz 11’s daylong journey to Salyut 1 proved quite uneventful, with the a few cosmonauts boarding the new house station with handful of troubles. For the subsequent a few weeks, they carried out lots of experiments, which include nurturing Chinese cabbage and bulb onions, having spectrograms of stars, and photographing snow and ice on the banks of the River Volga. The orbiting trio were even featured on Soviet evening tv.

Continue to, joy proved elusive. The disjointed shift get the job done turned a grueling marathon, the monotony of which Dobrovolski lamented in his ever-present diary. An overheating instrument also flooded part of the station with smoke, taxing the cosmonauts’ nerves and testing their ability to stay a cohesive crew. Fortunately, some harmony returned when Patsayev turned the very first person to celebrate a birthday in house, with his crewmates treating him to a shock unique meal of veal, cookies, and blackberry juice.

However, it would be Patsayev’s previous birthday.

Late on June 29, Soyuz 11 last but not least undocked from Salyut 1. Three several hours later on, with their principal mission full, the cosmonauts fired their ship’s engine to return to Earth. Volkov jokingly questioned flight controllers to be certain that a source of cognac — a traditional welcome-dwelling gift — was waiting for them at their landing web site.

Twenty-9 minutes ahead of landing, even though nevertheless at an altitude of all-around 100 miles (one hundred sixty kilometres), explosive fees fired, as prepared, to separate Soyuz 11’s orbital and instrument modules. The bell-shaped capsule was now the crew’s only protection versus the fiery furnace of re-entry.

The Soyuz 11 capsule appeared undamaged just after landing. But when the restoration staff knocked on the capsule, they were met with ominous silence. (Credit rating: NASA)

A Gruesome Discovery

What transpired subsequent transpired fast.

As quickly as the other modules were jettisoned, the strain within the crew capsule precipitously fell. All the air was escaping from Soyuz 11. Based mostly on the positions of the astronauts’ bodies upon their discovery, investigators concluded that Dobrovolski and Volkov had unstrapped from their seats to endeavor to uncover the source of the leak. Health and fitness trackers confirmed their heart charges soared as they searched. But time was not on their aspect. In 50 seconds, Patsayev’s pulse dropped to ranges regular with oxygen starvation. And within a hundred and ten seconds, all a few cosmonauts were dead.

At this issue, Mission Control was unaware of the gravity of the predicament. As tries to call the crew above VHF radio were met with stony silence, having said that, a pervasive perception of unease crept into the area. Twenty-two minutes ahead of landing, military radar detected the rapidly descending capsule entering Soviet airspace. Mainly because the craft was nevertheless re-entering the ambiance, and thus sheathed in super-heated plasma, communications remained difficult.

The a few Russian cosmonauts at their funeral in 1971. (Credit rating: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts)

As the minutes ticked on, hopes for a delighted ending were prematurely rekindled when the capsule’s drogue parachute quickly billowed out, followed by the primary cover. Ten minutes ahead of landing, helicopter crews spotted the undamaged Soyuz 11, gently swinging beneath the ideal-hunting parachute.

Continue to, there was no phrase from the crew.

Mission Control temporarily professional elation when the helicopter commander described that the capsule had landed and the restoration staff was placing down close by. In their minds, they were mere minutes from opening the hatch and treating the cosmonauts to the sweet smells of dwelling for the very first time in a few weeks. In two minutes of landing, search and rescue personnel attained Soyuz 11. They manufactured their presence regarded by hammering their greetings on the ship’s hull.

There was no reply from within.

When they opened the hatch, they found out all a few cosmonauts slumped above motionless. Their faces were lined with darkish, bruise-like spots, and blood was seeping from their noses and ears. Dobrovolski was nevertheless warm, but all tries at resuscitation proved fruitless.

The very first call concerning the rescuers and Mission Control, when it arrived, took the sort of a few quantities: 1-1-1. It was a code to denote each and every of the cosmonauts’ health. The selection five stood for outstanding affliction, four indicated great affliction, three meant accidents were experienced, two emphasised individuals accidents were really serious, and 1 meant they were fatal. A string of types quickly told flight controllers that Dobrovolski, Volkov, and Patsayev were all dead.

Investigators later on identified that the cause of these very first house fatalities was a faulty valve that sprang open up in the course of the separation of the orbital and instrument modules. With no way to deal with the leak, the cosmonauts didn’t stand a likelihood. The tragedy prompted national grief throughout the Soviet Union. Even stone-confronted Leading Leonid Brezhnev wiped absent tears when he finally filed earlier the men’s coffins.

As a immediate outcome of the incident, upcoming Soyuz ships arrived outfitted with sturdier valves showcasing speedy-action chokes that can speedily plug any air leaks. But most appreciably, all upcoming crews also don strain suits all through both start and landing.

Thankfully, considering that that tragic day 50 years in the past, each Soyuz crew has safely introduced and landed.

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