The Man Forced To Die In Spaceflight

“Loyalty means nothing unless it has at its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice.” —Woodrow Wilson, address on American Spirit

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?

Yuri Gagarin.

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.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via moonandback.com
The flight of Voskhod-1, what a surprise!
BBC On This Day: 1967: Russian cosmonaut dies in space crash
Encyclopedia Astronautica: Komarov

  • TheMadHatter

    That’s messed up… Screw with a man’s morals and force him to die like that…

  • Atlas

    I’m not trying to be an ass, but a KN article that told Kamarov’s story has already been written.
    http://knowledgenuts.com/2013/12/09/the-cosmonaut-who-fell-from-space-to-save-a-friend/
    But you still did a great job with this article, and I’ll always be inspired when reading about Kamarov, he made such a selfless decision, the man was truly a hero. May he rest in peace.

    • Lisa 39

      You’re not an ass, thanks for pointing it out tho and posting the link :p

      • Atlas

        Thanks Lisa, and sure thing.

    • But the older version did not specifically implicate Brezhnev for his part in this tragedy.

  • Lisa 39

    Damn, he really was a hero, that was so brave.

    • Culture Vulture

      The fact that he sacrificed his own life for the safety of his close friend Gagarin is really touching. Those first cosmonauts were an amazing group of people, heroes for the whole world, not just the Soviet Union.

      • Lisa 39

        Absolutely, they really paved the way, the sad part of this story is that the people in charge knew there were problems and basically sacrificed this man when they had time to work on some of the problems, this man was the bravest of all tho, he knew he was going to die for his friend, that’s amazing.

        • Culture Vulture

          It really is amazing that even though the cosmonauts knew that there were problems and that the government and bureaucracy did not see them as more than expendable assets (except for maybe Gagarin, he was a national hero) they still did what needed to be done in order to pave the way for future exploration.

          • Lisa 39

            We sure have come a long way since the cave days, we’ve walked on the moon, have a roving camera on mars and we’ve officially reached deep space, sometimes we really rock!

          • Culture Vulture

            It is amazing how far we have come, just looking at the pictures of the footprint on the moon or the “Blue Dot” picture gives me such a sense of perspective on how amazing the space program actually is..

            By the way have you ever heard of Valentin Bondarenko? He was the first cosmonaut ever to die, but in a training accident. He was caught in an oxygen chamber fire and was so burnt that the only blood vessel they could find was in his foot. Yuri Gagaran sat vigil at his bedside up until Bondarenko’s death, and then went up in the Vostok 1 only three weeks later. Bondarenko’s Wikipedia page gives a good brief overview of the accident: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentin_Bondarenko

            Once again proving how brave these guys were, Gagaran went up less than a month after seeing the terrible accident!

          • Lisa 39

            I’ve never heard of him, thank you for that link, such a handsome and determined young man, what a shame that he died like that, it must have been gut wrenching to have to watch him burn for that long, poor guy.

  • Too high fa Dis

    It’s too easy to hate Russia and everything about that worthless country.

  • UN

    “герой” russian for hero

  • Liege_Lord

    Well put atlas, I’ve seen a lot themes in the articles posted, and in some instances the posts are a cobbled article of recent cracked.com or listverse.com articles… This was a good article, but arn’t there editors for Knowledgenuts (in all seriousness). I don’t mean to be rude either, but whoever approves the articles should be intimately familiar with what has been posted in the past… there should not be a circumstance were an indentical article is republished under a different title.

  • JenniferBunny

    Obama is a commie. This is what you get.

  • Exiled Phoenix

    To know you’ll die making sure your friend is safe, true friendship. Fare thee well Komarov…

  • Scott

    It must have been scary enough being shot up into space in primative NASA technology. Can you imagine how much it must have sucked ass being shot up there riding in “the people’s” rocket? Fuckin thing was likely built out of scrap metal and tape. If there’s one thing communism does not produce it’s quality merchandise.

  • Adeola Oluwapelumi Orekoya

    sacrificial lamb of the ussr

  • James
  • Brother John

    Politics trumps science. Hm.

    • Orbi1

      It often does…

  • Nicholas Vainglory Phillips

    Holy shit.

  • Truth

    Why didn’t they both just refuse to go? Id rather die on Earth than die like he did.

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