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