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.

Photo: user uploaded image

  • Cosmonaut Buddies Vladimir Komarov And Yuri Gagarin Were Both Prospects To Lead The Mission


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    After announcing the Soyuz mission, the Soviet Union named Vladimir Komarov as the man to fly the spacecraft. The cosmonaut was well aware of the dangers the mission presented but found himself between a rock and a hard place as launch approached. If he rejected the honor of manning Soyuz 1, his good buddy and fellow cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would be the alternative choice. By the time Soyuz mission was announced, Gagarin was already a celebrity in his own right and the face of Soviet success in space. If Komarov turned down the job, he risked alienating his government and would be stripped of his military honors... but then Gagarin would be required to go in his place. The blood of an icon was not something the politburo wanted on its hands, and Komarov did not want to put his friend in danger, so he took the gig, despite knowing he may not return to Earth. 

  • The Soyuz 1 Wasn't Ready To Fly
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    The Soyuz 1 Wasn't Ready To Fly

    The Soyuz 1 was reported to have more than 200 flaws in its mechanics, verified by engineers and the backup cosmonaut Gagarin himself. Gagarin had allegedly passed a 10-page report to the KGB outlining these flaws and requesting cancellation of the mission. Allegedly it was covered up, and the mission went on as scheduled.

    Not everyone, however, is so sure that this coverup was indeed the case with Soyuz 1. The story of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, captured in the controversial 2011 book Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran, was found to have inconsistencies and inaccuracies which has since cast shadows on the actual truth of what was known about the readiness of Soyuz 1 and what may have actually been actively covered up. Ultimately, however, multiple mechanical failures did cause the Soyuz 1 problems once it reached space.

    Yet another problem was that the logistics of docking Soyuz 1 onto Soyuz 2 once they were in space were very difficult. 

    "The hatch in the spacecraft’s spherical ‘orbital module’, for example, was much too small – just 66 cm in diameter – for a fully-suited cosmonaut to easily pass through... Redesigning the Soyuz hatch would take months, so it was decided to transfer the cosmonauts’ oxygen supplies from a backpack to a ‘waist pack.' Komarov’s main duty would be to dock his craft with Soyuz 2 and much debate raged in the days before launch over whether this should be automatic or under manual control. Komarov was adamant that he could guide Soyuz 1 to docking, by hand, from a distance of 200 m."

  • There Was Drama On Launch Day


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    According to the Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, before even leaving Earth, the launch of Soyuz 1 was beset by drama. Journalist Yaroslav Golovanov reported that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin showed up at mission control on launch day and demanded to be suited up for launch. Some believe he showed up that day to save his friend. And some dispute this report entirely. Nevertheless, Soyuz 1 launched as scheduled, at 3:35 am Moscow time on April 23, 1967. 

  • Soyuz 1 Started Manifesting Problems Almost Immediately After Launch

    Almost immediately after launch, the Soyuz 1 manifested significant problems. Just a few minutes into its first orbit, one of its two solar panels failed to deploy, which cut the power supply considerably. The failed panel obstructed the sun, which in turn interfered with the ship's altitude sensors. Without those working properly, the craft was unable to stabilize itself. Komarov did what he could to knock the panel into place, but he was unsuccessful. As the batteries drained, officials decided to bring Soyuz 1 home. The launch had been going less than 24 hours, and it was decided on the ground that Komarov should re-enter Earth on his 17th orbit.


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

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

    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

    Komarov's Last Words Were Tragic

    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."