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Soyuz debris
The debris of the Soyuz-1 spacecraft after it crashed and, later, burned.

Fifty years later: Soyuz-1 revisited (part 2)

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The reentry

The problem now was how to return the spacecraft from orbit, hopefully on the 17th orbit, but with the 18th and 19th orbits as possible backups. Agadzhanov's team at Evpatoriia considered the matter carefully. In order for the ship’s main engine to fire to deorbit the vehicle, it had to be pointed in the proper direction. In order for this to happen, Komarov needed to orient the spaceship properly using attitude control jets helped by sensors that would position the ship around the appropriate axis. But one system (45K) wasn’t working. Another, the ionic system, appeared to be faulty and might be unreliable during the early morning hours when the return was planned due to ion pockets (“wells”) that could disrupt the work of the sensors.

Time was running short for Komarov.

The third system was a manual system, based on visual cues to the cosmonaut would be very difficult to use during reentry since the Earth’s horizon would not provide a sharp enough visual contrast for Komarov to fix upon, especially in the shadow portion of the orbit. With an incorrect attitude, Soyuz-1 would either burn up in the atmosphere or fly into a higher orbit. Normally, with manual orientation, the cosmonaut would be crossing the Earth’s terminator into lighted areas. In Komarov’s case, with a reentry at the earliest opportunity, he would still be in the dark.1

Time was running short for Komarov. If he was to perform a successful reentry on the 17th orbit, then Agadzhanov's team needed to transmit a precise set of commands to Komarov on the 16th. It was already the 15th orbit and officials at both Evpatoriia and Tiura-Tam were still arguing over a proper choice of orientation for reentry. It had been almost 24 hours since the launch, and not one member of either the State Commission, nor the Main Operations and Control Group, had slept. In their state of alarm, members continuously violated established rules to communicate only via secret channels between the two centers.

After extensive series of discussions between various designers, the consensus appeared to be that the least dangerous option for Komarov was to use the troubled ionic system during the 17th orbit. In preparation, mission planners proposed a test on the 15th orbit to see if the system reacted properly. To transmit the instructions, first cosmonaut Iurii Gagarin assumed the role of central communications link with Komarov and remained so until the remainder of the flight, the fate of these two famous cosmonauts becoming linked at this very tense moment.

Komarov dutifully carried out a test of the automatic ionic orientation system on the 15th orbit and reported to Gagarin on the following orbit what happened:

Ion orientation was as follows. At 00:35 I switched on the ion orientation. Immediately the “Ion Flow” indicator lit up, and at 00:37, after two minutes, the “Orientation Occuring” indicator lit up. During operation of the orientation engines, this display flashed. The orientation was accurate in yaw. With pitch, the image of the Earth in the outer part of the Vzor was above the horizontal line. [But] you can orient the ship along roll. In any case, you can maintain, by roll, the orientation after it was oriented to the light. That’s all I have.2

The report instilled confidence that it would be possible to use this system for reentry on the 17th orbit. Based on his report and assessment from data on the ground, the State Commission recommended that Soyuz-1 be landed on the 17th orbit using the automatic ionic orientation with the DPO. On the preceding orbit, Komarov had a lengthy communications session with Gagarin going over all the procedures for reentry, checking the status of various spaceship systems, and his health (“I feel excellent.”). The temperature inside the headlight-shaped Soyuz Descent Module was a brisk 55.4°F. Pressure in the DPO and DO were respectively 200 and 210 respectively.

Prior to settling in for reentry, Komarov had transferred some equipment from the Orbital Module to the Descent Module, putting it in one of the three seats. He would undergo reentry, first sitting in the left seat while the main engine was firing and then move to the middle seat later. As the session time wound down, Gagarin remarked to Komarov in orbit, “With me here are a lot of friends who are sending warm greetings, the kindest wishes for a soft, good landing, best of luck. We’re waiting on Earth!” To which Komarov replied, “Thanks for your wishes. Not much time before we meet, so I’ll see you soon. Wish you success in everything.” Gagarin responded “Thank you friend. We’re waiting here, we’re waiting impatiently.”3

At the appointed time, Soyuz-1 initiated the reentry sequence, which would lead to a landing about 150 kilometers east of Karaganda at 0336 hours Moscow Time.4 The main engine was supposed to fire for 146 seconds beginning 0256:12 Moscow Time on April 24 but nothing happened. Ballistics reports pouring into Evpatoriia indicated that Soyuz-1’s orbital parameters had remained the same. Once communication with Komarov was reestablished, the cosmonaut reported that the ion system appeared to have worked fine (he switched it on at 0035 hours), but evidently, as the ship had crossed the Equator, it had flown into an “ion pocket” in the Earth’s shadow where the concentration of the ions was less than what the sensors could detect. The ship’s control system correctly issued a command to prohibit the firing of the main retro-engine.5 Komarov reported that once the ionic orientation system switched off, the ship was slowly rotating around the pitch axis.

The mood was extremely tense on the ground. Once again, Mishin took the microphone and asked repeatedly, “Rubin, did you understand everything? Understood the task that you were given?” Komarov very calmly replied, “I understood everything perfectly. Clearly. I know how to act. Everything will be fine.”

For many years, it was thought that with the failure of reentry on the 17th orbit, ground controllers decided to try again on the 19th. But the mission transcripts in fact show that on the 17th orbit, immediately after failure of the ionic orientation system, Komarov tried another strategy. This was a highly complicated approach to reentry, untested on any mission and certainly one Komarov had never trained for. It involved three different regimes of work over a 70-minute period. First, as Soyuz-1 flew over the daylight side of the Earth, at 0306:51 Moscow Time, Komarov would start using the manual orientation system (“airplane-style,” as Gagarin radioed to Komarov) using the Earth’s horizon to maintain attitude. Then, about 35 minutes later, as the ship entered shadow, he would transfer attitude control to the ship’s internal gyroscopes, called KI-38. Then, after emerging from the shadow, he would check the proper attitude of the ship, and if necessary, carry out some more manual adjustments. At 0425:51 he would fire the main retrorocket engine to de-orbit.6 In the event, the plan didn’t work. Komarov turned on the manual system at 0319 (about 15 minutes late) but reported that “there was no orientation… in my opinion, the orientation engines didn’t work, because there [appears to be] no fuel consumption.”7

On orbit 18, Gagarin transmitted a revised set of instructions to try again on the 19th orbit. Time was of essence as the ship’s onboard buffer batteries were beginning to run out of power, and after a couple of more orbits, Soyuz-1 would be a dead spacecraft in orbit. The plan on the 19th orbit was similar to the one tried on the 17th with one exception: the reentry would be a ballistic entry instead of a guided one. The plan was to turn on the manual orientation system at 0521:15 while the spaceship was still in the daylight portion of the Earth. Komarov would carry out the manual orientation using the DPO. He would then switch to the gyroscopes in the night portion. Then, after exiting, he would get back on manual orientation and fire the retrorocket engines at 0557:14.8

The mood was extremely tense on the ground. Once again, Mishin took the microphone and asked repeatedly, “Rubin, did you understand everything? Understood the task that you were given?” Komarov very calmly replied, “I understood everything perfectly. Clearly. I know how to act. Everything will be fine.” He repeated later, as if to reassure those on the ground, “I understood you perfectly. I’m not worried. I’m not worried. I’ll work until completion of the program.” Kamanin then jumped in:

Kamanin: “How do you feel? How’s your mood?”
Komarov: “I feel excellent. The mood is good. I’ll do everything according to the program…. All the data is here. The life-support system works perfectly. All is well.”
Kamanin: “Rubin, very good, very happy. We’re all confident that you’ll be all right. Work calmly.”
Komarov: “Understood. Everything will go according to plan.”
Kamanin: “… Well, we’re all waiting for you, we wish you success.”
Komarov: “Many thanks. Goodbye! See you later.”

After a brief discussion about various power levels in the spacecraft (through a clearly bad communications link with garbled voices), we hear the first note of anxiety in Komarov’s voice:

Komarov: “Understood that the [angular rate sensors] and the [manual orientation] should be turned on after the ‘Descent’ indicator is turned on. But I’m worried that there won’t be enough time to calmly perform the orientation.”

After this, Komarov reported that he had initiated this very complicated process:

Gagarin: Read you. carry out [pause]
Komarov: At 0457 I switched on the [manual orientation]
Gagarin: Understood, at 0457, switched on the [manual orientation]9

As the events raced to their finish, controllers at Baikonur, Moscow, and Evpatoriia waited with bated breath for news of how Komarov had fared. Kamanin, in his diaries, noted that “[t]hese were very difficult and unpleasant moments.”10 When he was back in radio contact on the 19th orbit, Komarov had good news to report. He had performed all that had been asked of him to the letter: he had carried out the complicated manual orientation in the Earth’s daylight by eyeballing the Earth’s horizon, then transferred control to the spaceship’s internal gyroscopes in the shadow portion of the Earth, and then finally switched back to manual orientation as it exited the shadow. Then, expertly, he fired the retrorocket engine as planned.

As others who have also heard the mission communications sessions, his last words to ground control, before a ball of fire covered his ship in atmospheric friction and disrupted communications, were a model of reassurance and calmness.

In a calm tone, he reported, “Zarya-10, this is Rubin. The engine worked for 146 seconds. All is normal. All is normal. The engine worked for 146 seconds. The ship was oriented properly. All is normal. I’m in the middle seat. Seatbelt on.” The comm person at Zarya-10 excitedly asked again to confirm whether the critical orientation had occurred correctly. Komarov replied in the passive voice: “Orientation was carried out accurately, without errors.”

As the entire Soyuz ship slowly arced downwards into the upper atmosphere of the Earth, Komarov was now irreversibly and irrevocably going home. As others who have also heard the mission communications sessions, his last words to ground control, before a ball of fire covered his ship in atmospheric friction and disrupted communications, were a model of reassurance and calmness:

Zarya-10: …You’re now waiting for separation [of the Soyuz modules], so are we. Are the thermal sensors activated? This is Zarya. Over.
Komarov: Activated, activated, don’t worry, everything is normal. 11

These sensors would detect the appropriate temperature to separate the modules into three parts.

Zarya-10: Understood, we’re already calm. How do you feel, how are you? Zarya. Over.
Komarov: I feel excellent, everything is in order.
Zarya-10: Understood. Here, comrades are recommending for you to take deep breaths. We’re waiting for the landing. This is Zarya. Over.
Komarov: Thank you to everyone. Separation [garbled]
Zarya-10: Rubin, this is Zarya. Understood. Separation occurred.12

The incomplete report on the separation of the modules were the last words anyone heard Vladimir Komarov say.

The data on the ground indicated that the engine had indeed fired for 146 seconds, from 0557:15 to 0559:38.5, just enough to send Soyuz back to Earth on a proper trajectory. About 15 minutes after that, though, controllers at Evpatoriia noticed that a command that was spuriously issued with the ominous name “Emergency-2.”13 Boris Raushenbakh, a senior control systems designer, gathered his resolve and explained to the team not to worry. The attitude control system had been unable to handle the strong moments due to the asymmetry of the vehicle, and the gyroscopes had issued the “Emergency-2” command after the spacecraft deviated from its set angle by eight degrees. That only meant that, as anticipated, Soyuz-1 was carrying out a direct ballistic return. All other parameters, such as the length of the burn, were well within range for a successful reentry. In many respects, the Soyuz spacecraft was displaying its very robust design by performing so well despite so many anomalies.

At Tiura-Tam, State Commission members were huddled together on the second floor of the administrative area of the huge Assembly and Testing Building at Site 2. Journalists at the launch site were excluded from the meeting, but were able to overhear voices. Cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov served as an intermediary to brief reporters on the ongoing situation. Many top managers of the Soviet space program were in attendance, including, of course, Mishin and Kerimov but also President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Mstislav Keldysh, Minister of General Machine Building Sergey Afanas’ev, and Air Force First Deputy Commander-in-Chief Marshal Sergei Rudenko.

About 15 minutes after retrofire, there was the expected break in communications as Komarov’s capsule entered an ionization layer. Already, as soon as news had been received that Komarov had carried out the reentry procedure successfully, General Kamanin and a group of Air Force officers rushed to the airport and took off in an Il’iushin Il-18 aircraft to head for the projected landing site, which was a reserve landing point for the mission, about 67 kilometers east of Orsk, far west of the planned site for a guided reentry. Orsk itself was a small city about 2,000 kilometers northeast of Evpatoriia. According to ballistics data, Soyuz-1 would land at 0624 hours Moscow Time. Kamanin’s impressions as he flew over Orsk were poignant:

…We are already above Orsk. I have been in this city several times, it was always dusty and uncomfortable. And now it seems even more unpleasant to me than usual: endless rows of standardized houses, dozens of heavily smoking plants, lack of greenery and water, and huge clouds of dust. No, it definitely doesn’t like me, this Orsk. But we won’t stay here: Soyuz-1 landed at 0624 Moscow Time, and now it’s 0825—during these two hours Komarov has probably already been delivered to the city airfield…14

The landing

Once ground control determined the landing site, the reserve search and rescue service at the town of Orenburg (about 250 kilometers northwest of Orsk) was called into operation to locate the Descent Module. It was a beautiful and sunny morning at the landing site, and visibility was very good. One member of the rescue service, Iosif Davydov, later recalled that:

The commander of one of the [Antonov] An-12 search aircraft reported to the helicopter commander that he could see Soyuz-1 in the air. All the group members were immediately at the windows. But we couldn’t see the Descent Module descending in the air. The helicopter commander began a rapid descent. Then the helicopter turned sharply to the right, and many of the group members saw the [Descent Module] down in a green field. It was lying on its side, and the parachute could be seen right next to it. And then the soft-landing engines [suddenly] kicked in [and a fire started]. That alarmed the specialists on the helicopter, because the engines were supposed to switch on just before the landing of the [Descent Module], right above the ground.15

The first helicopter landed 70–100 meters from the capsule, which was now surrounded by a cloud of black smoke. The fire inside the vehicle was still very intense; the bottom of the ship with its soft-landing engines had, in fact, completely burned through. Witnesses claimed that streams of molten metal were falling on the ground. Along with foam fire extinguishers, rescuers, as they arrived at the capsule, used earth around the ship to temper the fire. Davydov noted that “[t]he vehicle was completely destroyed while the fire was being extinguished, and the spot looked like a small earthen mound, beneath the peak of which was the cover for the hatch-crawlway.”16

Kamanin, meanwhile, landed at Orsk airport about two hours after the Soyuz-1 impact, fully expecting to meet Komarov there. Once out of his plane, he noticed no activity at the airport. As he wrote later, “an alarm crept into my heart.”

The rescue service originally communicated on an open channel with ground controllers at Moscow, Tiura-Tam, and Evpatoriia, although they spoke in code. Once the rescuers had seen the ship on the ground and on fire, one of the pilots cryptically reported: “I see the object, the cosmonaut needs urgent medical attention out in the field.”17 At that point, perhaps to preclude rumors, the search service terminated all communications with the three control centers. For the next few hours, there was no news from the site as Mishin, Kerimov, and others anxiously waited for any scrap of news.

Kamanin, meanwhile, landed at Orsk airport about two hours after the Soyuz-1 impact, fully expecting to meet Komarov there. Once out of his plane, he noticed no activity at the airport. As he wrote later, “an alarm crept into my heart.”18 He was told that the ship had landed 65 kilometers away, that it was burning, and that the cosmonaut had not been found. Another report came in that Komarov was wounded but alive in a hospital in a town 20 kilometers from the landing site. Kamanin decided to go immediately to the crash area by helicopter, although he was ordered to wait for a call from Moscow to report on Komarov’s status. As Kamanin took off in a helicopter and headed to the landing site, back at the control centers, there was complete confusion. Space program overseer Dmitrii Ustinov, who was at the mission control center at TsNIIMash, in the Moscow suburb of Podlipki, was frantic for information. He began calling up various Party apparatchiks in Orenburg and Orsk on special lines, but could not reach anyone. Although the vehicle had landed at 0624 hours, Ustinov received no information on the state of the cosmonaut for the next three and a half hours.19

In all this confusion, the Kamanin’s helicopter pilot, not knowing the exact landing coordinates, apparently got lost on the way to the landing site. What should have taken 25–30 minutes took an hour and a half. When Kamanin arrived at the location, the Soyuz-1 Descent Module was still on fire. He was not the first senior space program official on the scene. Academician Georgii Petrov, the Director of the Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute, had arrived there first and was directing efforts to assess the situation. There was still no sign of the cosmonaut. Local residents, who crowded around the wreckage, reported that the ship had fallen towards the Earth at a great speed, and that the parachute was turning and not filled up with air. They confirmed the observations of the search and rescue service that at the moment of landing, there were several explosions followed by the fire. Kamanin recalls:

A cursory examination of the ship convinced me that Komarov was dead and was still in the remains of what used to be his ship. I ordered to clear out the debris on the ground and search for Komarov’s body. Simultaneously I sent General Tsedrik by helicopter, and Lieutenant-Colonel Obel’chak by automobile to the local hospital in order to verify the story of the injured cosmonaut. After an hour of excavations [i.e., at around 0930 hours] we discovered the body of cosmonaut Komarov among the remains of the ship. At first, it was difficult to make out where the head was, where the arms and legs were. Apparently, Komarov had died at ship’s impact on to the ground, and the fire burned his body into a small burnt lump measuring 30 to 80 centimeters.20

Finding the body had been a difficult job. One of the rescuers recalled that:

The group’s physicians set to work—they shoveled away the top layer of dirt from the top of the mound from the hatch cover. After the dirt and certain parts of instruments and equipment were removed, the cosmonaut’s body was found lying in the center chair. The physicians cleaned the dirt and the remnants of the burned helmet phone from the head. They pronounced the death to be from multiple injuries to the cranium, spinal cord, and bones.21

Kamanin meanwhile flew back to Orsk and telephoned Central Committee Secretary Ustinov with the following short message:

I was at the location. Cosmonaut Komarov was killed, the ship burnt up. The primary parachute of the ship did not open, and the reserve parachute did not fill with air. The ship hit the ground at a speed of 35–40 meters per second; after impact there was an explosion of the soft-landing engines and a fire started. I was not able to report on the fate of the cosmonaut earlier since nobody could see anything, and during that time we extinguished the fire in the ship by covering it with dirt. Only after carrying out excavations were we able to find Komarov's body.22

Komarov’s remains were removed from the wreckage and sent to Orsk. Three hours later, Keldysh, Tiulin, Rudenko, and other members of the State Commission arrived at the landing site. Gagarin also arrived soon after, flying in from Evpatoriia.

At noon on April 24, Ustinov called Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who was at an international conference of communist parties in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, with information on the accident. Ustinov also edited a TASS report that was issued after a full 12 hours of silence since the landing.23 The official line was that although the flight had been eventless until reentry and that Komarov had “fully implemented the planned program of operating the new ship’s system, and also the planned scientific experiments.” Furthermore, “during the opening of the main parachute canopy at an altitude of seven kilometers, according to preliminary data, as a result of twisting of the top cord of the parachute, the space ship descended at a high velocity, which was the cause of the death of V. M. Komarov.” This was not strictly true since, as investigators later found out, neither the primary nor the backup parachutes worked at all. The news item added that “[t]he untimely death of the outstanding spaceman test-engineer of spaceships Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov is a great loss for the whole Soviet people.”24

Komarov’s daughter, Irina Vladimirovna, recalled in an interview in 2013 that the family knew something was wrong when the residential phone lines went dead. When the wife of fellow cosmonaut Konstantin Feoktistov appeared to show support, her mother began “to shake.”

In the early afternoon, State Commission members Kerimov and Keldysh, as well as Chief Designers Mishin, Fedor Tkachev (specializing in parachutes), and Gai Severin (spacesuits) arrived at the impact point, escorted by KGB agents. Soon, senior engineers from the TsKBEM, including Deputy Chief Designer Pavel Tsybin and specialists involved in Soyuz development, arrived to catalog and inspect the entire landing area. Famed test pilot and civilian cosmonaut Sergei Anokhin, one of the first to arrive at the crash site, later told Chertok that “I can’t tell you how many burned up airplanes I saw during the war… but there was no comparison with what we saw there. Hydrogen peroxide proved to be much more horrible than gasoline.”25

Komarov’s remains were taken in a coffin back to Moscow arriving an hour after midnight on April 25. On board the aircraft were Keldysh, Kamanin, and the other cosmonauts who had trained for the mission: Bykovskii, Gagarin, Gorbatko, Khrunov, Kubasov, Nikolaev, and Eliseev. They were met in Moscow at the airport by Komarov’s widow Valentina Iakovlevna Komarova. Komarov’s family had essentially been in the dark throughout most of the mission. April 24 was an overcast day in Moscow and Komarov’s daughter, Irina Vladimirovna, recalled in an interview in 2013 that the family knew something was wrong when the residential phone lines went dead. When the wife of fellow cosmonaut Konstantin Feoktistov appeared to show support, her mother began “to shake.” As it began to rain heavily, a black Volga pulled up to their house and a three-star general walked out and knocked on their door. Irina remembers her mother asking only one question “Are you sure?,” to which the man replied “Yes, absolutely certain.”26

Komarov’s remains arrived in Moscow on board an Il’iushin Il-18 aircraft. Earlier, the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Air Force, Marshal Konstantin Vershinin, had called Kamanin while he was still at the crash site to inquire whether there could be an open casket for the funeral. Kamanin said that that wouldn’t be possible, that the only immediate option was cremation. Vershinin insisted that the remains at least be photographed before cremation. After arrival in Moscow in the early morning of April 25, Komarov’s remains were taken to the morgue at Burdenko Hospital in Moscow, where Marshal Vershinin arrived. The coffin was opened and, as Kamanin later recalled, “on a white satin lay what was only recently, the cosmonaut Komarov, and now it has become a shapeless black lump. Gagarin, Leonov, Bykovskii, Popovich, and other cosmonauts approached the coffin, and they very sadly inspected the remains of their friend.”27

The remains were then cremated and by 10:00 am, Komarov’s urn was placed for public display at the Red Banner Hall of the M. V. Frunze Central House of the Soviet Army (TsDA) for mourners to pay homage. From 12:00 noon to 10:00 pm, a continuous stream of people filed in to pay their last respects. The next day, the Soviet Party and government gave him a state funeral with full honors and his ashes, like Korolev’s, were interned in the Kremlin Wall.

In a grisly aside to his death, not all of Komarov’s remains were found during the initial search. A group of Young Pioneers—the equivalent of Boy Scouts in the USSR—discovered additional remains that were later buried at the crash site itself. Reportedly, Party officials took great pains to hide this fact from the general public.28

page 2: the investigation >>