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An illustration of Soyuz-1, launched on its ill-fated flight 50 years ago.

Fifty years later: Soyuz-1 revisited (part 1)

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In the history of Soviet space exploration, there are a few high points that draw in a lot of conspiracy theorists. One of them is, of course, the flight of Yuri Gagarin in 1961. A simple Google search will lead one to a slew of websites, chronicling in great detail, all the supposed cosmonauts who died getting to space before Gagarin.

And then, of course, there is the tragic flight of Vladimir Komarov in 1967, a veritable font of all manner of wild speculations. In April 1967, the Soviets had launched Komarov on the very first mission of the Soyuz spacecraft. A day later, the cosmonaut was killed after his space capsule plummeted to Earth and crashed in Soviet Central Asia. It was the first fatality of a spacefarer during a space mission in the history of spaceflight.

This is an attempt to use the transcripts, along with other Russian language sources, to offer a new and comprehensive account of this deeply misunderstood mission.

As soon as Komarov’s death was announced, rumors spread. The most ubiquitous include: that he was “crying in rage” as his spaceship plummeted to Earth, angry at the engineers and designers who built a faulty capsule; that he directly talked to Chairman of the Council of Ministers Aleksei Kosygin who broke into tears telling Komarov (over video!) that he was a hero; or that Komarov’s wife and children tearfully said their goodbyes before his demise. American intelligence agencies supposedly picked up all these harried transmissions from tracking stations in Turkey.

None of these claims are borne out by the available evidence. And there is now plenty of evidence for historians to work with. These include memoir and diary material that has been available since the nineties, but also, more strikingly, the full ground-to-air transcripts of Komarov’s mission. On a recent trip to Moscow, historian of science Slava Gerovitch and I visited the so-called Russian State Archive of Scientific-Technical Documentation (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv nauchno-tekhnicheskoi dokumentatsii, RGANTD). There, Dr. Gerovitch painstakingly transcribed the audio recordings of the ground-to-air transcripts, which were preserved on tape and later digitized on CD and made available for researchers. While these recordings do not contain everything Komarov said on the mission (some of his transmissions were to remote tracking stations beyond the main one in Crimea), they do include all the crucial back-and-forth with the heads of “mission control.”1

This current article is an attempt to use the transcripts, along with other Russian language sources, to offer a new and comprehensive account of this deeply misunderstood mission. The available evidence clearly shows that not only was Komarov not in hysterics, but that he communicated calmly and cogently throughout the mission, and only with people who he was supposed to be in touch with: cosmonaut communicators, flight directors, and chief designers. These transcripts also provide crucial detail on what exactly happened in orbit and how mission control and Komarov tried to bring a very faulty ship under control. The proximate cause of Komarov’s death was clearly a faulty parachute deployment system. But, more broadly, when Komarov boarded his spacecraft for liftoff, the Soyuz spacecraft was incontrovertibly not ready for crewed flight. And some of the blame for the tragedy must fall on three broader factors: political pressure to accomplish a mission in time for several anniversaries in 1967, the need to reassert Soviet dominance in space after a lull, and a management culture that discouraged dissenting voices.


The Soyuz program, when conceived in the early 1960s, was meant to be a kind of umbrella program, the project that would take Soviet cosmonauts to Earth orbital space stations and perhaps to the Moon. The spacecraft, known in internal design documentation as the 7K-OK, had a troubled development phase, years behind schedule. By the time that the first precursor test vehicle was ready for flight, it was already late 1966 and the founding visionary who led the Soviet human spaceflight program through its early years, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, was dead.

The original idea for the first Soyuz mission was a complicated one: to launch two Soyuz spaceships on successive days, the first with one cosmonaut and the second with three. Once both ships were in Earth orbit, the two Soyuzes would dock and then two crewmembers from the second vehicle would exit their ship in spacesuits, crawl over to the first Soyuz and climb in to join the solo cosmonaut. The two ships would then separate and return with their respective crews. It was a relatively complicated set of maneuvers for the times and even more challenging for the Soviets, who had not managed to complete a single docking in space by that time. The whole mission was planned not as some engineering exercise but as a test of procedures that might be required for an actual lunar landing mission in the future, when cosmonauts would have to transfer from a lander to a mother ship in lunar orbit.

From an outsider’s perspective, the natural course of action for TsKBEM would have been to add another Soyuz test mission into the schedule.

The design organization in charge of the Soyuz program was the rather generically-titled Central Design Bureau of Experimental Machine Building (TsKBEM), one of the largest and most important space design organizations in the Soviet Union which had been headed (in its various incarnations) since 1946 by the legendary Korolev. In 1966, after Korolev’s untimely death, a 50-year old deputy of Korolev, Vasilii Pavlovich Mishin, had taken over. Although Mishin was a very creative and brilliant engineer, he was not the best manager and lacked the polish and communication skills required for a leader of his stature. It is under Mishin’s command that TsKBEM carried out three automated test flights in anticipation of the actual twin-docking mission.

The results of these precursor flights were catastrophic. In three attempts to launch the Soyuz ship into orbit, one (in November 1966) failed to orient properly during reentry and was destroyed, one (in December 1966) was aborted during launch but destroyed the entire launch pad in an explosion, and the third (in February 1967) had been recovered from the bottom of a lake with a hole in its heat shield.

At this point, TsKBEM was caught in a bind. There had not been a single Soviet piloted space flight in more than two years, since the successful spacewalk of Aleksei Leonov in March 1965. In the same period, NASA had performed ten spectacular Gemini missions in Earth orbit, punctuated by several rendezvous and dockings and spacewalks, all indications of a remarkable level of maturity in Earth orbital operations. For two years now, TsKBEM had been preparing for its own coup—a spectacular Soyuz mission involving two ships—but given the three consecutive failures, was that even a real option? As it turns out, many people thought so.

From an outsider’s perspective, the natural course of action for TsKBEM would have been to add another Soyuz test mission into the schedule. The two spacecraft that had actually reached orbit had had significant problems, primarily in their reentry phase, and certainly there would have been the need to verify the operation of all the components of reentry, such as the heat shield, parachute system, orientation systems, and so on.

Beginning in February, the results of the three Soyuz attempts were the subject of intense discussion. The primary issue was whether to carry out another automated mission or to go directly to a piloted flight. Two of Mishin’s senior deputies, Konstantin Bushuev and Iakov Tregub, led this analysis in February and March of 1967. Mishin invited a host of representatives from all organizations involved in the Soyuz to hear from each their assessment of the status of their particular system and its potential readiness for a piloted flight. Remarkably, most of the designers and engineers recommended moving directly to crewed operations. Among the most senior dissenters was Ivan Prudnikov, a department chief at TsKBEM who based his objections on the insufficient testing of the new improved heat shield. The majority of designers and managers, however, expressed confidence in the work of the heat shield.2

On March 25, 1967, the Military-Industrial Commission (VPK), the management authority over the Soviet defense industry, met to discuss the preparations for the impending mission. Representing the operations team was the State Commission, a separate ad hoc body that would oversee the actual flight. Five men, including State Commission Chairman Major-General Kerim Kerimov, Air Force Lieutenant-General Nikolai Kamanin (in charge of cosmonaut training), and Mishin, reported to VPK Chairman Leonid Smirnov on the status of preparations for the mission.3 Smirnov asked several questions, including “Do you think the equipment will work smoothly?” Kamanin replied that:

After carrying out three launches of the Soyuz and finishing all ground testing we have full confidence that the flight will be successful, although at one point some of the cosmonauts had certain doubts about the reliability of the vehicle. We know that following the burn-out of the bottom of ship no. 3, TsKBEM has worked hard to reinforce the base, and Chief Designer Mishin has repeatedly said that there should be no more doubts about the reliability [of the base]. We believe Mishin.4

Kamanin introduced all the cosmonauts preparing for the flight, which included four primary crew members and four reserve (or backup) crew members: Valerii Bykovskii, Iurii Gagarin, Viktor Gorbatko, Evgenii Khrunov, Vladimir Komarov, Valerii Kubasov, Andrian Nikolaev, and Aleksei Eliseev, who would all be ready to fly by April 28. Although there was no formal decision on the prime crew, Komarov (for Soyuz-1) and Bykovskii, Eliseev, and Khrunov (for Soyuz-2) were the leading candidates. Two days later, Mishin personally met with Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Dmitrii Ustinov, the nominal “overseer” of the Soviet space program, in the upper echelons of the Kremlin, to discuss the flight, setting in motion a series of events that would cripple the Soviet space program.5

Even among these high achievers, Komarov was already a standout. By all accounts he was conscientious, highly intelligent, modest and reserved, and one of the most erudite of the cosmonauts.

Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov was 40 years old at the time of the flight with a rank of Engineer-Colonel. Raised in a low income family, where his father, Mikhail Iakovlevich, worked successfully as a janitor (when Vladimir was born), then a porter, storekeeper, metalworker, and then laborer, Komarov excelled at an early age. He entered an Air Force school during World War II at the tender age of 15 and, once enlisted in the Red Air Force, rose quickly through the ranks. By August 1959, he had graduated with honors from the prestigious Zhukovskii Air Force Engineering Academy, before his selection as part of the first cohort of cosmonauts the following year.

Even among these high achievers, he was already a standout, older by about five years over his fellow mates and one of the only test pilots in the group. In the early 1960s, he served as an understudy on at least two Vostok missions but was sidelined at least twice from training, first due to a hernia operation and second when doctors detected a single extra systole on an electrocardiogram. He persevered and was put back on the training regimen both times, eventually launching into space in 1964 as commander of Voskhod, the first multi-person spacecraft, a mission that caused much panic in the West. It is not a coincidence that when the Soyuz program was in the planning stages, Komarov was the unanimous choice to command its first flight, thus also becoming the first Soviet cosmonaut to fly twice in space. By all accounts he was conscientious, highly intelligent, modest and reserved, and one of the most erudite of the cosmonauts. He and his wife, Valentina, had been married for 17 years and had a son, Evgenii (aged 16), and a daughter, Irina (aged nine).6

The decision to move ahead with the docking mission has been obfuscated and mired in controversy and speculation for 50 years. Some have suggested that Mishin himself was against the launch, that “The Soyuz was hastily prepared for launching and it was launched (an unprecedented act!) despite the categorical refusal of Vasilii Mishin,” but this is unlikely.7 There was clearly a great deal of political pressure from General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Ustinov to get the flight off the ground. Apart from the successes of Gemini, there were other compelling reasons: May Day, one of the most important holidays in Soviet culture, was imminent, and there is reason to believe that the Soyuz flight was timed to roughly coincide with the anniversary. A simple automated flight of the vehicle would have hardly amounted to much for such an auspicious occasion. When asked in an interview in 1990 whether the Soyuz flight was beset by political pressure, Mishin replied

Truly, there never was a time when we worked in peace, without being hurried or pressured from above. The unskilled, totally bewildered, high-ranking bureaucrats believe that they are fulfilling their duties if they are shouting “Let’s go, let’s go!” at people who don't even have time to wipe the sweat off their brows.8

Asked about the possibility that his deputies may have committed errors during the preparations, Mishin emphasized that, “No, the deadlines and the pressure from above have nothing to do with that. Not a single supervisor for any of the Soyuz systems would have given the ‘go-ahead’ to the flight if he were not certain of that system’s satisfactory operation.”9

The recent deaths of the American astronauts on Apollo 1 had been the result of unnecessary haste in the US space program; the Soviets, Kamanin claimed, were not in such a hurry.

Ultimately it was a decision motivated by the apparently huge lead in piloted space exploration accrued through 1965 and 1966 by the United States. Throughout 1966, both the political and technical managers of the Soviet space program banked on the inauguration of the Soyuz program to take some steam out of the US space program that finally seemed to have gained its wings after years of humiliation. When Mishin, Bushuev, Tregub, and others recommended a go-ahead with the flight, they clearly did not have full confidence in their ship. Korolev, of course, had also taken his own chances, particularly with the two Voskhod missions that were highly risky endeavors. The EVA mission of Voskhod-2, for example, was not preceded by a fully successful test mission. But Soyuz was a far more complex spacecraft that was a completely untested quantity in terms of crewed operations. Thus, the Soyuz mission was a gamble of extraordinary levels, a risk that was taken undoubtedly because mission planners hoped that the run of luck that extended under Korolev would keep going under Mishin. Unfortunately, for the Soviets, luck ran out.

The intensive discussions on Soyuz in February and March 1967 were mirrored by the slowly increasing number of rumors emanating from “unofficial” sources from the Eastern bloc that a Soviet space spectacular was imminent. On March 7 a commentator on Prague Radio reported that “much more complicated manned operations in Earth orbit are about to begin which have taken over two years to prepare.”10 Just two days later, Kamanin, in a long interview with Warsaw Radio, said that piloted flights would begin again that spring. He added that the Soviets were not locked onto any particular date and that the flight would come only when they were assured of success. The recent deaths of the American astronauts on Apollo 1 had been the result of unnecessary haste in the US space program; the Soviets, he claimed, were not in such a hurry.11

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