• Space

The USSR Was Crushing The US In The Space Race, Then An Unprecedented Disaster Derailed Everything

In 1957, at the height of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, the "Space Race" began, sending the battle between the two world superpowers for technological dominance soaring into the heavens. Both countries attempted to launch the first space satellites that year and at first, the Soviet Union was much more successful. A rocket made by the US failed upon launch, while the Soviet Union's unmanned satellite, Sputnik I, successfully orbited Earth. In 1961, the Soviets were successful again — cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man ever to orbit the Earth. But nobody had yet set foot on or even orbited the moon. Following the 1967 Apollo mission disaster in the US which was a major setback for the country's space program, the Soviet Union was eager to best its rival by sending a man to orbit the moon and hastily announced its Soyuz mission which launched only a few months later. It would prove to be a fatal mistake. 

How much of what is known today about the 1967 death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov and the crash of Soyuz 1 is still up for debate. There are controversial accounts about the incident, stemming from the secrecy surrounding the Cold War's Kremlin: they all paint a tragic portrait of a brilliant cosmonaut, but some reports argue he may have died at the hands of his own government. Were important details were covered up that may have caused a rushed but faulty launch? The most chilling speculation, though, is what happened during the last moments inside Soyuz 1 and what Komarov's last words really were — was he in despair over his fate or did he still have hope he would make it out alive? 

Nevertheless, Soyuz 1 was pushed into launch before it was ready and Komarov did not make it out alive. The "Space Race," which was so winnable in the hands of the Soviets (who had a lot of "firsts" in its earlier years), was now set to be won by the United States. In the earliest days of space exploration before moon walking, international space stations, and yes, the horrible Challenger disaster, the story of Soyuz 1 is a true time capsule to the mythos of the Cold War's race to space.

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  • Soyuz 1 Re-Entered Earth's Atmosphere And The Mishaps Escalated

    Video: YouTube

    Soyuz 1's problems didn't end in orbit. It was imperative that the rocket re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at the proper angle — a little too high and it would skim the atmosphere; a little too low and it would burn up as it entered. Komarov positioned Soyuz 1 manually to the best of his ability (any automatic systems had been rendered useless by the broken solar panel). 

    Komarov wasn't able to make his re-entry until his 19th orbit, at which point he successfully re-entered Earth's atmosphere. But his parachute capsule didn't successfully deploy, so the entire ship went plummeting to Earth with Komarov still on board.

  • Komarov's Last Words Were Tragic

    Video: YouTube

    As Komarov struggled to position his craft, he was able to converse with mission control. In August 1972,  Perry Fellwock, then a US National Security Agency analyst, claimed he had been on duty the night of the Soyuz 1 crash in Istanbul, Turkey, and had heard a tragic exchange between Komarov and ground control, which included his wife and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. “It was pretty awful,” Fellwock said. “Towards the last few minutes, he was falling apart.” Reports also say he was cursing out whomever had authorized the dangerous mission.

    Starman authors Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony allege that American intelligence "picked up [Komarov's] cries of rage as he plunged to his death." Fordham University space historian Asif Siddiqi disagrees saying, "Komarov never told ground control that he knew 'he was about to die.' In fact, while he was in orbit, there was a decent chance that he would get back home alive." 

  • All That Was Left Of The Cosmonaut Was A Heel Bone

     

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    Komarov was given an open casket funeral per his wishes. He had been reduced to a burned mass in the crash and the only part of his body that remained, fried beyond recognition, was a charred piece 30 cm wide and 80 cm long. The only recognizable part of him left (and the largest part overall) was a heel bone. He was given full military honors at his funeral. 

  • The Soyuz Mission Was The Soviet Union's Response To The US Apollo Mission

     

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    Embarrassed by the gains the Soviets were making toward space domination, President John F. Kennedy announced the Apollo missions — meant to put humans on the moon — in 1961. For the next few years, both the USSR and the US were in a race against each other, and time, in hopes of being the first country to stake its claim on the lunar surface. 

    After Apollo 1 caught fire during a ground test and killed three astronauts in January 1967, the entire US space program was stunned. But the Soviet Union knew that it would only be a matter of time before its rival was successful in its attempts to reach the moon, so the country hastily announced the Soyuz mission in early 1967. The goal of the Soyuz mission was to link the Soyuz 1 spacecraft up with another spacecraft, the unmanned Soyuz 2, for the first mid-space docking maneuver of manned spacecraft, dropping off some crew members before continuing on to a lunar orbit as Soyuz 2 returned to Earth with its crew.