The Russian Soyuz program is the longest-running spaceflight program — variations of the spacecraft have been in use since 1966. It’s been so successful it’s become the Soviets’ workhorse in space and remains Russia’s human spaceflight system today. But the program got off to a very rocky start. The first-ever Soyuz mission, Soyuz 1, launched a known flawed spacecraft and ended with the death of the cosmonaut on board, Vladimir Komarov, marking the first time in history someone has died on a spaceflight.
From Air to Space
In the 1950s, experimental test flying was one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Pilots were testing new and unproven aircraft, and their laboratory was, in effect, the sky. With the dawn of the space age towards the end of the decade, their laboratory expanded off the planet. This was true in both the United States and the Soviet Union. The earliest days of space exploration were marked with uncertainty and best guesses for how to keep a crew alive while also learning about this new business of human spaceflight. In America, that first experimental program was Mercury. In the Soviet Union, it was Vostok.
The Soviet Union had a very different arrangement for its space program than did the United States. While the United States had a civilian agency wholly separate from its military missile development programs, the first Soviet satellites were an offshoot of its military missile programs. The lack of duplicating efforts gave the Soviets an advantage and was among the factors that enabled that nation to launch history’s first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957.
Like in the United States, it wasn’t long before the Soviets thought about adding a life-support system and human to their early spacecraft. Sputnik 2 launched with Laika on board on November 3, 1957, but the system was badly flawed, and Laika didn’t survive. Nevertheless, the Soviets were working on human spaceflight.
As the new decade dawns, the Soviets forged ahead with robotic launches towards Mars and Venus with a mix of success and failure. It also began developing the first manned spacecraft called Vostok.
Vostok was as simple as its American Mercury counterpart: a largely automated mission with the human as the largely a passive occupant. The mission was simple. The spacecraft launched on a Korabl rocket with four smaller staging rockets strapped around the sides for added thrust. The launch vehicle got the spacecraft into orbit where it would stay for 90 minutes.
As for the cosmonauts’ role while in space, the decision came down to a checklist. Engineers with the Design, Research, and Development office (known by its Russian anagram of OKB-1) prepared a list outlining the in-flight duties during every stage of the mission and in emergencies. Some believed the cosmonauts could manage everything, but others, including the spacecraft’s designer Sergei Korolev, sought to automate everything. They argued that for the first flight, at least, the pilot should have no responsibilities.
The cosmonauts fought back, pointing to their shared background as test pilots. The cosmonauts’ chief physician took their side, too, arguing that the men were bright and explicitly trained for this mission. They could certainly handle a few simple procedures.
In the end, arguments in favour of pilot control were victorious and the cosmonaut was granted the option of manually controlling his spacecraft. To do so, however, he would have to unlock the onboard computer. This was done by six-digit code, three of which the cosmonaut had onboard. The missing three were in a sealed envelope he could only open in an emergency.
The mission ended with a simple deorbit burn to begin Vostok’s fall to Earth. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, the cosmonaut would have to eject per mission rules; Vostok’s parachute-assisted landing was too hard for a human to survive so he would use a personal parachute.
The cosmonaut for the first mission was selected with public relations top of mind. Possible pilots came from humble backgrounds and had moved through the Soviet system to achieve esteemed positions within the military as test and fighter pilots. Yuri Gagarin was chosen for his pedigree as much as his suitability for the mission. On April 12, 1961, he became the first human to orbit the planet.
Learning to Live in Space
The space age matured quickly but somewhat unevenly once both nations had launched their first human missions. While the United States developed a whole new sophisticated spacecraft for its second program, Gemini, the Soviets merely made some adjustments to Vostok and renamed it Voskhod, which means Sunrise.
Voskhod was essentially a Vostok with elements removed to allow for a bigger crew. Still, the Soviets accomplished remarkable feats with this program, even if some of them were more propaganda victories than technological ones.
The crew of Voskhod 1 — Vladimir Komarov, Konstantin Feoktistov, and Boris Yegorov — flew without spacesuits so they could all fit. This was a direct response to public coverage of the three-man Apollo spacecraft under development at NASA, and marked another flight wherein the Soviets beat America to a goal in space; this was the first multi-manned crew.
Voskhod 2 saw Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov and launch into orbit, only two this time because Leonov’s spacesuit and the airlock added to the spacecraft made it too tight for a third cosmonaut. But it was a remarkable mission. On that flight in March of 1965, Alexei Leonov became the first person to perform a spacewalk, a feat that nearly killed him. His suit expanded in the vacuum of space, and he was forced to let out some of his oxygen to shrink it down enough to fit back into the airlock. If that wasn’t enough, the crew landed off target in a densely forested area and had to spend the night in the woods with wolves prowling around. Recovery crews had to cross-country ski to their landing site the following day, and the cosmonauts *still* couldn’t be recovered. Only on the third day when they could make a clearing for a helicopter were they transported from the forest.
There were no further Voskhod missions. Instead, and largely for political reasons, Soviet efforts tuned to the new spacecraft under development: Soyuz.
Soyuz was, like the modification to Vosktok, a direct response to Apollo. But this spacecraft had the technological changes to keep pace with the American developments and was conceived by Sergei Korolev, the Soviets’ Chief Designer and the driving force behind the nation’s earliest wins in space.
Soyuz was designed as the spacecraft that would eventually take cosmonauts to the Moon. As such, it was able to manoeuvre in orbit to perform rendezvous and docking. Early mission plans had the Soyuz rendezvous and dock with lunar stages waiting in Earth orbit delivered on previous launches, not unlike the Earth Orbit Rendezvous mode NASA briefly considered for Apollo. Later plans called for an Apollo-like Lunar Orbit Rendezvous profile. Either way, maneuverability in orbit was a necessity.
Soyuz also debuted a new landing system for the Soviets. Like the previous programs, and similar to Apollo, the Soyuz descent module would separate from the instrument module and return alone. It had a flat bottom unlike the round-bottomed Vostok and Voskhod vehicles, giving it a slight amount of lift during its fall to Earth. A large parachute would deploy to slow its descent, and final cushioning would come from retrorockets firing right before touchdown to soften the impact. It was the first time cosmonauts would stay inside their spacecraft during landing.
Because the Soyuz was designed to support the Soviet lunar program, it had versions to work out all the elements like rendezvous and docking in Earth orbit before going to the Moon. It developed in the background while the Vostok and Voskhod programs flew, meaning a lot of things changed in the Soviet space program changed before Soyuz flew. A lot changed in the Soviet Union as a whole, too.
In 1964, Leonid Brezhnev mounted a successful coup over Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The crew of Voskhod 1 got a phone call in orbit from one leader and landed the next day to find a new one heading the country.
Where space was concerned, Brezhnev was as demanding as Khrushchev, pushing for launches to coincide with important dates and national events. But the fast pace the Soviet space program had enjoyed since its inception stalled with the death of Sergei Korolev in 1966 after complications from surgery. His successor, Vasiliy Mishin, assumed the pressure of meeting the Premier’s deadlines, and it started with the first Soyuz mission.
The Inaugural Launch
Details of the new program’s inaugural launch were kept tightly under wraps. Then, on April 20, 1967, the prime and backup pilots were confirmed — Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin respectively. The launch was set for April 23.
Launch day was celebrated with a simple press release saying Soyuz 1 was the first mission in a new program. But shrewd observers noticed that the mission had a numeric designation, which was uncommon for Soviet flights. In both the Vostok and Voskhod programs, the first mission only got a numeric designation after the second had flown. Speculation swirled of a secret plan to launch a second Soyuz mission at the same time, and that suspicion wasn’t too far off.
The flight plan for Soyuz 1 was complicated and risky. As per the plan, Komarov would launch on April 23. The following morning, Valery Bykovsky, Aleksei Yeliseev, and Yevgeny Khrunov would launch in Soyuz 2. Komarov’s was the more sophisticated spacecraft, so it would be his job to manoeuvre Soyuz 1 to a rendezvous and docking with Soyuz 2. Once docked, two cosmonauts would don spacesuits and transfer from Soyuz 2 to Soyuz 1 via spacewalk. Soyuz 2 would land with one cosmonaut on board, and Komarov with a full crew would land in Soyuz 1.
But this plan was more than Soyuz could realistically handle on a first flight. Many engineers and cosmonauts had doubts about safety, not just of the transfer plan but the spacecraft flying at all. Unmanned test flights revealed serious problems and experienced failures that would have killed a human pilot. Some engineers voiced their concerns. They wanted to play it safe and continue with unmanned testing until all the bugs were worked out, but of course, more unmanned tests would push back the inaugural launch, and Brezhnev wanted to get the new program flying sooner rather than later. He wanted a flight before or on May 1 so the mission could coincide with the National Day of Worker Solidarity. A return to manned missions would reinforce to the Soviet people just what the socialist system could achieve.
It was Dmitry Ustinov, a member of the politburo, who set the final launch date and pressured Mishin to launch on time. He also put immense pressure on Komarov to fly, going so far as to strip the cosmonaut of all his military honours if he refused.
Komarov was wary of the assignment. There were known flaws in the spacecraft and general doubt about its readiness to fly at all. Victor Yevsikov, an engineer on the Soyuz development team, knew the spacecraft wasn’t completely ready. Mishin refusal to sign off on the descent module’s flight worthiness. There were 203 known flaws in the spacecraft just weeks before launch, and a group of cosmonauts and engineers put together a ten-page report outlining all of them. But getting the report into the right hands was a separate issue. The Soviet system tended to blame, and punish, the messenger when it came to bad news.
Just days before launch, Yuri Gagarin’s KGB escort and close friend Venyamin Russayev accepted this daunting task. After dining with Komarov and his wife one night, Russayev learned of the seriousness of the situation. As Komarov walked Russayev to the door at the end of the evening, he turned to the KGB officer and said plainly, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.” Komarov explained that he had no choice but to fly. If he refused, Gagarin would go in his place as his backup, and he couldn’t send a close friend and national hero to his death.
Russayev passed the report along. Nothing happened regarding the mission, and Russayev was banned from interacting with cosmonauts or anyone affiliated with the space program ever again. He hadn’t even read the report.
Political pressures weighed heaviest. The mission was a Go.
Things were tense when April 23 dawned. Members of the press recalled that Yuri Gagarin seemed particularly agitated. He wasn’t supposed to suit up and go to the launch pad with Komarov, but he demanded to be put into a pressure suit regardless. It was a strange request since the nature of Komarov’s flight was such that he wasn’t required to wear a pressure suit. His spacecraft had an airlock through which spacewalking cosmonauts would transfer to Soyuz 1. Speculation was that Gagarin was either attempting to elbow his way into the cockpit in an attempt to save his friend’s life or that he was hoping his own donning of a suit would pressure officials to put Komarov in one as well. Some even wondered if Gagarin was trying to disrupt launch procedures enough to cancel the mission.
It didn’t work.
Komarov launched at 3:35 on the morning of April 23, 1967. Soyuz 2 stood ready to launch the next morning.
Soyuz 1 ran into problems almost immediately when one of the solar panels failed to deploy. The spacecraft was crippled, limping along with half the necessary power supply. Komarov tried to deploy the panels manually. He even tried kicking the spacecraft where the panel connected on the outside, but his attempts to dislodge it were in vain. The stuck panel affected his guidance system; it blocked the stellar and solar instruments, stopping the cover from coming off at all. By his second orbit, Komarov’s was struggling to control his attitude, spin stabilization, and engine firing.
Boris Chertok and his team, who had taken control of the mission after launch, tried to find a solution to Komarov’s mounting problems, desperately trying to get him a solution before his batteries ran out of power.
By 10am, the situation aboard Soyuz 1 was so bad that the launch of Soyuz 2 was cancelled, though some accounts say Soyuz 2 was ready to mount a rescue mission to manual fix the solar panel but was scrubbed because of adverse weather.
Engineers on the ground developed a plan to bring Komarov down on his 17th orbit with backup options on orbits 18 and 19, well before the batteries would die. The procedure had Komarov manually align his spacecraft for retrofire, burn his engine for 150 seconds, then hold his attitude during reentry. It wasn’t something he had trained for, but he was an excellent pilot and more than competent enough to pull it off.
A little before 6:20 the morning of April 24, Komarov burned his retrofire engine. He briefly got his spacecraft oriented but couldn’t hold his attitude. He reported a retrofire burn, but a failure command in the computer shut the engines off prematurely. From the ground, telemetry confirmed that the descent module had separated from the instrument module and that he was going to land off-target.
But a long landing wasn’t Komarov’s only problem. With only one solar panel deployed, the spacecraft was unbalanced. As he entered the atmosphere, the Soyuz started spinning, and it only got worse as the atmosphere thickened. Since he couldn’t control his orientation, he couldn’t negate the spin, which meant he couldn’t take advantage of the spacecraft’s aerodynamic capability. Soyuz 1 wasn’t generating any lift. It was falling like a stone.
Soyuz 1 hit the ground at full speed with the force of a 2.8-ton meteorite, flattening the capsule instantly. The force of the impact triggered the retrorockets that were supposed to fire before landing. They lit the remains of the spacecraft on fire.
Recovery forces in a helicopter sent a flare into the air above the crash site to signal the location to any nearby crews. The flares they used were colour coded, but without a flare to signify “dead cosmonaut,” they launched one that meant “cosmonaut needs urgent medical attention” over the crash site. It was only when ground crews arrived that they realized there was almost no chance of saving the cosmonaut. They shovelled dirt over the fire to suffocate the flames, but the charred spacecraft collapsed under the weight to become little more than a mound of earth with a hatch sticking out of the top. They quickly changed tactics, uncovering the spacecraft in an attempt to reach the man they thought was trapped inside. When they cleared enough earth to open the hatch, they found Komarov’s remains still in the seat. His headset was still snuggly over his ears.
Komarov’s death was formally attributed to multiple injuries sustained by the skull, spinal cord, and bones. The press release announcing his death made no mention of the crash landing that had led to those injuries. There was also no public mention that the parachute had failed to deploy. The parachutes, though, were the focus of the post-flight investigations.
The Soyuz had two parachutes — one smaller braking parachute that deployed first, pulling the larger main chute out of its casing once inflated. But the main chute had never deployed. The system had worked perfectly in testing with both full-scale drop tests and static tests of the release mechanism. There was no indication of why it failed on this mission.
Again, speculative rumours circulated. Some believed it wasn’t properly packed. Others thought that the parachute was too big for the canister, so it got stuck when the time came for its release.
Boris Chertok offered another possibility in his memoirs. He explained that the Soyuz was covered in a thermal protectant polymer, a glue-like substance that was sealed onto the vehicle in an autoclave. When Komarov’s spacecraft was put in the autoclave, the parachute pack was uncovered, leaving this one piece of the assembly unfinished. The polymer could have easily seeped into the open parachute pack, gluing the chute closed. Test versions of the spacecraft didn’t go into the autoclave, so this wouldn’t have been seen in a failed test.
The formal recommendations after the mission were to change to shape of the parachute pack from a cylinder to a cone to increase its volume, to polish the internal walls for less friction when it delayed, and to take step by step photos of the chute installation to verify it was packed correctly. The development of a better emergency separation mechanism for the backup chute was also on the list of improvement.
Soyuz 1 in Retrospect
Whether a functioning parachute would have saved Komarov’s life is unclear. The Soviet space program was shrouded in secrecy for years, and a lot of details have only emerged recently, not without conflict. Chertok’s version of events has been contested by his fellow engineers, mainly because of the 203 flaws identified by cosmonauts and engineers in that prelaunch report; there was possibly another element that contributed significantly to the accident. Most don’t believe that the mission would have been survivable even with a perfectly packed parachute.
There’s also some question over the Russayev story. Historians think he might have invented his involvement in the story or else overstated his role in the mission. Others aren’t even certain the ten-page report exists; it might not have been a memo. That is, unfortunately, one of the questions that may never been answered since the physcial thing hasn’t been found.
The modern Soyuz reflects decades of improvement over this original model, but problems with the landing system aren’t a thing of the past. The landing rockets have failed, subjecting crews to harder than normal landings. But parachute deployment has become incredibly reliable since Komarov’s fateful flight.
Sources: Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran. Starman. 1998; Asif Siddiqi. Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge and The Soviet Space Race with Apollo. 2003; Colin Burgess and Rex Hall. The First Soviet Cosmonaut Team. 2009; Rex Hall and David Shayler. The Rocket Men: Vostok & Voskhod, the First Soviet Manned Spaceflights. 2001; The Russian Space Web on Soyuz 1; The Russian Space Web on Soyuz.
This article is a revisit of an old blog post that I didn’t realize no longer exsists because I got rid of that old blog. I wanted to put it here to coincide with the updated YouTube video because I never did do a proper one. Archives of my two old blog posts are here and here.