In A Nutshell
After being placed as captain on the USSR’s Soyuz 1 mission, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was launched into orbit. After inspecting his craft, Komarov found it was riddled with no fewer than 203 problems. Still, he agreed to go on the mission to save the life of the second-in-command, Yuri Gagarin.
The Whole Bushel
In 1967, the leader of the Soviet Union—Leonid Brezhnev—decided to stage a spectacular in-orbit display of the technological prowess of the USSR to celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The plan was this: Around midnight, Soyuz I—with a man inside—would ascend to an orbital height. Following this, Soyuz II would meet it, they would dock and the cosmonauts would then exchange places and return to Earth.
Komarov inspected the Soyuz I capsule. He pointed out the size of the module hatch—it was too small for a person to pass through safely. Nothing was done about it, and Komarov and the other cosmonauts became increasingly anxious about the lack of response to their fears.
Later the same year, Vladimir Komarov was appointed the commander of the Soyuz mission. The flight engineers taught him what he had to do. Before the flight, Russian hero and close friend of Komarov’s Yuri Gagarin inspected the capsule. He spotted no fewer than 203 problems with the capsule. When he told the commanders, nothing was done. So he wrote a 10-page memo to the Soviet leader, Brezhnev, asking to postpone the flight and gave it to his friends in the KGB. Nothing was done. The people who saw it were diplomatically isolated or demoted, and the note never made its way up the chain of command to Brezhnev.
One month before the launch, Komarov realized cancellation was impossible. He met with his KGB friend, Russayev, and said, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.”
“Why not simply refuse?” Russayev replied.
“If I don’t make this flight,” the cosmonaut replied, “they’ll send the backup pilot instead.”
And who was that backup pilot?
On the launch day, April 23, 1967, the story goes that Gagarin turned up at the launch site and insisted he should be sent up instead of Komarov. No one expected him to fly. Soyuz I left Earth with Komarov on board.
Problems began as soon as the module entered orbit. One solar panel did not deploy, and the craft lost power. Soyuz started spinning wildly, and Komarov made an attempt to control it. He reported, “Conditions are poor. The cabin parameters are normal, but the left solar panel didn’t deploy. The electrical bus is only at 13 to 14 amperes. The HF [high frequency] communications are not working. I cannot orient the spacecraft towards the Sun.”
On his 19th orbit of the Earth—after spinning for almost five hours—Komarov was ordered to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. He did this successfully. The parachute, however, did not deploy. At almost 1,450 kilometers per hour (900 mph), Komarov hurtled toward the ground. At a nearby NSA listening post, radio engineers reportedly heard Komarov descending, cursing the Soviet scientists who killed him and Brezhnev who, ultimately, put him in the most difficult position it was possible to be put in: kill your friend, or die in his place.
His last words, according to some sources, were, “Heat is rising in the capsule.” The temperatures were so high that, when the Soviets recovered his fragmented remains, his body was molten, giving his corpse a dark, shriveled appearance.