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Science: Triumph and Tragedy of Soyuz 11

10 minute read

As the heat-scarred spacecraft settled to a soft, parachute landing on the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, a recovery helicopter was ready and waiting to touch down right alongside. Members of the recovery team raced to the apparently undamaged Soyuz 11, unfastened the hatch and swung it open to assist Cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev. Still strapped in their seats, the cosmonauts did not respond. All three were dead. Russia’s triumphant space mission, which had set new records for man’s endurance in space, assembled the first manned space station and added new luster to Soviet technology, had suddenly ended in tragedy. In Russia, where cosmonauts are firmly established as 20th century folk heroes, the entire nation mourned. Choked with grief, Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko told a television interviewer that “the price they had to pay was not fair.” Somber music echoed from radios, and pictures of the cosmonauts, draped in black, were shown on television. Led by Communist Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet leaders sent condolences to the families of the three dead men, all of whom were married and had children. Final tributes came during a day of national mourning that coincided with the state funeral and burial of the cosmonauts—all of them now Heroes of the Soviet Union—in a place of honor in the Kremlin wall. They were placed near the remains of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who was killed in a plane crash three years ago.

Birthday Celebration

President Nixon, mourning the death of the Russian spacemen, said that they had contributed greatly to “the widening of man’s horizons.” Pope Paul interrupted an audience to announce the sad news. In Geneva, officials postponed the dedication of a gleaming titanium space monument that had been donated by Russia to the Palais des Nations. There was particular gloom in the U.S. space community, especially among the astronauts. Beyond their sorrow for the dead cosmonauts, they felt that the accident—coming as it did on the eve of the Apollo 15 moon shot—might well diminish public enthusiasm for manned space travel.

Ominous Development

For all its tragic end, the mission that resulted in the first human deaths in space-had recorded a series of major achievements. For nearly 24 days, the three cosmonauts had whirled around the earth in their huge, 175¾-ton Salyut space station performing scientific experiments, bantering with mission control, and even celebrating a birthday in orbit. On board both the Salyut and the attached Soyuz shuttle craft, all systems seemed to function flawlessly. Thus last week, when the cosmonauts were ordered to transfer to Soyuz and return to earth, there was little cause for apprehension.

The mission commander, Lieut. Colonel Dobrovolsky, 43, reported that the undocking from the larger ship was uneventful. Then, after orienting their ship at the proper angle the cosmonauts fired Soyuz’s main rocket to slow the ship down, drop it out of orbit and send it back into the earth’s atmosphere. The rocket functioned perfectly. At the end of the burn, however, there was an ominous development. Long minutes before the radio blackout that always occurs as a returning spacecraft is enveloped by hot, ionized gases, Soyuz 11 unexpectedly lapsed into silence.

Otherwise, the descent seemed to be continuing normally. “After aerodynamic braking in the atmosphere,” reported Tass, “the parachute system was put into action and, before landing, the soft-landing engines were fired. The flight of the descending apparatus ended in a smooth landing in the preset area.” These operations, however, were automatic; they did not require cooperation from the crew. Western experts speculated that whatever went wrong with Soyuz 11 occurred either during or soon after the firing of its retrorocket.

Through telemetry from the spacecraft, the Russians may well have detected a failure aboard Soyuz—or even the moment of death. But except to say that the cosmonauts’ deaths were being investigated by a government commission. Soviet space officials gave no explanation of the disaster.

Penguin Suits

The record length of the Soyuz 11 mission—six days longer than any previous manned space flight—led to theorizing that the cosmonauts had exceeded man’s natural limits in space. The Russians themselves had invited such speculation by repeatedly stressing the debilitating effects of weightlessness on the human body: loss of body fluids, loss of calcium from the bones, loss of heart and muscle tone. Cosmonauts Andrian Nikolayev and Vitaly Sevastyanov, for example, complained that they did not fully recover from their 17-day orbital mission aboard Soyuz 9 last year for more than a week.

Medical experts conceded that weightlessness could have played a part in the deaths, but they had doubts that the hearts of three men with different physiologies would fail simultaneously. They also pointed out that at no time during the long mission did the cosmonauts complain of any harsh reaction to zero gravity. In fact, they had spent long hours on board in their so-called “Penguin” exercise suits—tight, elastic garments designed to exert muscle-toning pressure on the body. Besides, the experience of America’s astronauts seemed to demonstrate that the human body can readjust after prolonged weightlessness.

Mechanical Failure

NASA’s Deputy Director George Low and most other space specialists leaned to a far simpler explanation for the deaths: a mechanical or structural failure aboard Soyuz. Because the cosmonauts were not in protective pressure suits at the time of the descent, they could have died from any number of causes—excessive heat, carbon dioxide fumes from a small fire, a nitrogen leak from the spacecraft’s atmosphere system, or even a rapid drop in cabin pressure. Such theories got support from some unconfirmed reports that all radio transmissions—not only voice but also telemetry signals—stopped at the end of the braking maneuver. In fact, most speculation centered on a failure in the oxygen supply. That was based largely on the Moscow rumor that the recovery team had noted serene expressions on the faces of the cosmonauts. Such apparent composure is characteristic of hypoxia, a lack of oxygen that can lead to quick and relatively painless death.

Clearly, Soviet officials had already determined the cause of death. No lengthy autopsies were performed, and only a day after the accident the cosmonauts’ bodies were publicly displayed in Moscow’s Central Army Hall. (One puzzle: a heavy bruise was observed on the right side of Patsayev’s face.) Why, then, were the Soviets so secretive about the cause of the deaths? Westerners could only guess that Soviet space officials were being cautious, determined to be absolutely certain about what went wrong before announcing the results of their investigation.

At week’s end London’s Evening News reported that Russian scientists attending the state funeral had blamed the tragedy on the cosmonauts’ failure “to seal the hatch of their spacecraft properly.” The Evening News’ Moscow correspondent, Victor Louis (a Soviet citizen often suspected of being a Russian agent), wrote that “human error and mechanical failure between them caused creeping depressurization in the spacemen’s nine-foot cabin and deprived the astronauts of life-supporting oxygen on the final phase of their journey.” During the turbulent re-entry of Soyuz, Louis said, the spacecraft’s hatchway opened enough so that the oxygen supply escaped into space.

Why did the cosmonauts—or the ground controllers—fail to notice the opened hatch in time? “The Soyuz hatchway is not unlike a car door,” Louis explained. “When the hatch is open, a signal light goes on on a console at mission control. But the light will go out when the hatch is half closed, as with a half-slammed car door.” The calamity came at a time when the Russians seemed to be overtaking the U.S. in space—a remarkable comeback after they abandoned the race to land the first man on the moon. Still, the comeback was not entirely without its price. After the crash that killed Cosmonaut Komarov, the Soyuz spacecraft made no manned flights for 18 months while its faulty systems were overhauled. Although three manned Soyuz ships were fired off in rapid succession in 1969, the Soviets failed to make good on hints that the ships would dock and set up a rudimentary space station. In April, the Soviets followed up the orbiting of their unmanned Salyut space lab with the launch of Soyuz 10, but it took the three men aboard the smaller ship more than 24 hours to rendezvous and dock with the station. When the hookup was finally made, undisclosed problems forced them to back off and return abruptly to earth.

A Vote from Space

In contrast, the follow-up flight of Soyuz 11 was trouble-free from the start. Using improved docking techniques, it easily attached itself to the awkward-looking, tubular-shaped space lab. Upon entering Salyut’s trailer-sized interior, Dobrovolsky cheerfully announced: “This place is tremendous. There seems to be no end to it.” Through most of the mission, the cosmonauts remained in remarkably good humor. While a TV camera recorded their activities, they performed exercises, engaged in numerous scientific experiments and even cast the first votes from space—affirming their support of the Communist Party’s policies.

In fact, filmed excerpts of the broadcasts from space became favorite fare on Moscow television. Volkov, the only member of the crew who had previously made a space trip (aboard Soyuz 7, in 1969), was an idol of teen-age Russian girls because of his rugged good looks. Russian TV viewers also watched an impromptu birthday party staged for Patsayev, who turned 38 during the flight. Instead of pouring the customary vodka, his comrades toasted him with tubes of prune paste. Yet as the mission continued uneventfully day after day—first past the American endurance mark of 13 days set by Gemini 7 in 1965, then past the Soviets’ own record of nearly 18 days established by Soyuz 9 last year—the initial excitement turned into boredom.

Foreshortened Mission

Finally, after nearly 24 days the cosmonauts climbed back into Soyuz, taking the films, logbooks and other scientific data accumulated in three weeks aloft. Typically, Russian space officials made no prior announcement of the flight’s impending end. On the contrary, there had been hints all along that the cosmonauts might stay in orbit as long as a month. If there were reasons to foreshorten the mission, however, they were apparently not medical. Only a few days before, Soviet doctors had reported that except for slight fatigue, the trio were in exceptionally good health. Thus, when disaster struck, it was totally unexpected. “None of us had doubted the successful outcome of the venture,” said a saddened Moscow engineer.

Despite the shock, the very announcement of the cosmonauts’ deaths pointedly emphasized their contributions to man’s knowledge. And it promised a continuation of Russian efforts in space. Said the official Communist Party newspaper, Pravda: “We know that after this grievous loss, the difficult and dangerous struggle against nature will be continued with the same firmness and consistency. The Soviet people are used to struggle and do not retreat in the face of obstacles.”

* Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died in 1967 when Soyuz 1 crashed to earth after its descent-parachute shrouds tangled at the end of a 17-orbit mission. Only three months earlier, Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaftee were killed when a flash fire engulfed their Apollo 1 spacecraft during a simulated launch at Cape Kennedy.

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