The Cosmonaut Who Fell From Space To Save A Friend

“In general, the man who is readily disposed to sacrifice himself is one who does not know how else to give meaning to his life.” —Cesare Pavese, This Business of Living

In A Nutshell

In 1967, Vladimir Komarov met a fiery death plummeting from space in a Soviet spacecraft. Though he knew the craft had over 200 structural problems, he stepped aboard anyway—to make sure his friend Yuri Gagarin, the backup pilot, wouldn’t die in his stead.

The Whole Bushel

On April 23, 1967, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov stepped onboard a spacecraft, Soyuz 1, knowing that he was likely to die in space. Soyuz 1 had over 200 structural issues; it was almost certain to crash.

Komarov was to pilot Soyuz 1 as part of a ceremony honoring the 50th anniversary of the Soviet revolution. In space, he would connect Soyuz 1 to another craft, piloted by two additional cosmonauts, and would fly back to Earth with them. The demonstration would showcase the Soviet strength and victory.

A group of technicians examined Soyuz 1 and declared it dangerous to operate in space. Everyone who tried to report the issues, however, was demoted, fired, or relocated. The flight was going to happen, regardless of the consequences.

When April 23 rolled around, Komarov reluctantly got into the craft. He did so knowing that if he did not, his close friend, Yuri Gagarin, would be sent up instead, as he was the backup pilot for the mission. Gagarin was a Soviet hero—he was the first human to enter outer space.

Gagarin, not wanting Komarov to die, suited up and was ready to get on the craft. But Soyuz 1 took off with Komarov as the pilot.

Predictably, failures ensued. Soyuz 1’s antennas, power, navigation, and parachutes failed to work properly. The launch of the second craft was canceled, and Komarov died as the Soyuz 1 made its descent—sans parachutes—back to Earth. Gagarin himself ironically died a year later in a plane crash.

The event is recounted in the 2011 book Starman by Jamie Doran. Historian response to the book darkly suggests that Gagarin was never in any actual danger, as authorities considered him too valuable to risk. He was a backup only to satisfy protocol and would never have actually piloted Soyuz 1. If that were true, Komarov died for nothing. Poor Soviet recordkeeping may make it impossible to ever determine the truth.

Show Me The Proof

Vladimir Komarov: The Unsung Space Hero
NPR: Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth ‘Crying In Rage’
NPR: A Cosmonaut’s Fiery Death Retold

  • Exiled Phoenix

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

    • Hadeskabir

      That is what I call a hero, dying to save his friend. But knowing that probably they wouldn’t send Gagarin in his place just makes his heroic act pointless. Even though it might have been pointless, it still was heroic and represents how friendship is so important to some that they die to protect their friends. These are the kind of things that make me have faith in humanity.

      • Exiled Phoenix

        I doubt he had any knowledge that they wouldn’t send his friend up. It was after all the U.S.S.R. And Gagarin was willing to go, so I think the russian high command would’ve launched one or the other without caring. If Gagarin would’ve died, they would’ve simply said he believed in the U.S.S.R. so much he was willing to risk his life.

        People like Komarov inspire me as well to see humanities highest ideals and dedication to others.

  • Josh

    So he died for nothing to save his buddy who probably wasn’t ever in any real danger anyway? That sucks…

    • Hadeskabir

      Dying as a hero even though it was pointless is a great thing.

      • Josh

        Not trying to downplay his bravery and whatnot but is he really a hero knowing that his sacrifice was really for absolutely nothing?

        • Hadeskabir

          Of course he is, his heroic actions make him a hero.

  • Ace

    So saddd…

  • Atlas

    “A group of technicians examined Soyuz 1 and declared it dangerous to operate in space. Everyone who tried to report the issues, however, was demoted, fired, or relocated.” Oh a classic example of the negligence of Soviet command. Risking the lives of their citizens just for a bit of nationalism.

    • Bill Sluis

      ‘So the public was not told of the technical glitches assocoaiated with the rollout of the Obahmacare website because it would undermine political failth in the President. Despite numerous reports that the system would not operate as planned the website went live with NO beta testing and up to 80% of the system yet to be built. An estimated 30-50 million Americans are expected to receive notices of cancellation with little realistic hope of getting healthcare through the government built sites.”

      Oh a classic example of the negligence of Soviet command. Risking the lives of their citizens just for a bit of nationalism.

      History repeats itself first as comedy then as tragedy.

      • Atlas

        You’re right, its the exact same thing. Politics will never change

        • SuperWeapons

          If only you said: “Politics. Politics never change.”

          • Atlas

            Damn it. I did miss that opportunity for a sweet reference :P.

  • rhys

    bit of a romantic entry! especially the fact he didn’t ‘meet a fiery death’ to be blunt he ‘fell to his death’ sorry to be blunt, but I read these sites because they are interesting… but most of all true. things like this don’t need to be embellished to steal my interest! and for those who think theyre a bit of a science buff and would like to tell me the ‘fact’ that the compressed air caused the flames on re-entry..; he not only didn’t have enough mass to do that, but he would have been slowed by the air resistance as the atmosphere grew thicker.

  • The Ou7law

    What an amazing friend, once in a lifetime will you come across a ride or die friend. Way to be Kamarov way to be

  • Liege_Lord

    One of the most amazing feats of humanity is our ability to circumvent our instincts and logic… to willfully give your life for someone you love. It doesn’t even need to be a romantic love interest, we as humans can create such powerful bonds.

  • Gamer_2k4

    That’s a rather interesting quote choice at the top. I like it, but it implies you believe that Komarov died because he had nothing to live for, rather than because he was sparing a friend.