The names Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev aren’t exactly well known outside of Russia, but the three of them hold a rather somber accolade – they are the only three people to have officially died in space.
This article does not mean to belittle the others who have died exploring the unknown, such as the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. Instead, its aim is to highlight an interesting oddity from space history.
The crew of Apollo 1 died in a fire during a routine spacecraft test on the ground. Challenger exploded on its way to orbit, and Columbia burned up on re-entry. Commander Dobrovolsky and his two Soviet crewmates, though, died when their spacecraft depressurized at a height of 168 kilometers (104 miles) above Earth. The official boundary to space, the Karman Line, is 100 kilometers (62 miles) up.
The accident occurred during the Soyuz 11 mission in 1971. On June 6, these three had launched to the Soviet Union’s first space station, Salyut 1, and docked a day later.
Salyut 1 was a rather extraordinary achievement. At 99 meters cubed (3,500 feet cubed), it had roughly the volume of a double decker bus. It was placed in an orbit about 200 kilometers (125 miles) up, about half the height of the International Space Station (ISS) today.
Earlier in 1971, a crew aboard the Soyuz 10 mission had attempted to dock with Salyut 1. They were unable to enter, however, due to a fault with the docking system. Thus, the Soyuz 11 crew became the first ever to live aboard a space station.
While on board, the crew carried out a number of tasks. They tested out the station’s maneuverability, observed the surface of Earth, and tested how well humans coped with being in space.
It was not without its problems, though. On their eleventh day there, for example, a fire broke out near the rear oxygen tanks, almost causing the astronauts – or cosmonauts in Russia – to abandon the station until they got it under control.
After 22 days and a mostly successful mission, the cosmonauts prepared to leave the station. Salyut 1 would not be manned again and burned up in orbit towards the end of 1971.
The crew re-entered their Soyuz spacecraft and undocked from the space station when disaster struck.
The Soyuz was – and still is – designed with three segments. These are the orbital module, the service module, and the re-entry capsule. Only the latter returns to Earth, with the crew inside.
The re-entry capsule separates using explosive bolts, allowing the crew to return safely to Earth. During the Soyuz 11 mission, however, explosive charges that should have fired sequentially occurred at the same time.
This caused a valve to open by accident 168 kilometers above Earth, with the astronauts yet to re-enter the atmosphere. The air began rushing out of the spacecraft. Dobrovolski and Patsayev attempted to find and seal the leak. They would have had only 13 seconds of “useful consciousness”, before passing out in 60 seconds. After 110 seconds, their hearts had stopped.
A later investigation found that it would have taken 52 seconds to close the valve. But with much less time than that available before they became incapacitated, and not knowing the source of the leak, the cosmonauts were doomed.
Tragically, ground crews were not aware of this fact until they opened the capsule. The landing of the Soyuz was autonomous, so the spacecraft still made it safely to the ground in Kazakhstan, landing under parachutes. When the ground crew looked inside, they found the three crewmembers dead.
Footage of the ground team trying to resuscitate the Soyuz 11 crew. Warning, some may find this footage distressing
At the time, cosmonauts were not required to wear pressure suits during re-entry, which would have saved their lives in this instance. That was changed in the future, as a result of the investigation into the accident. This has since been worn on every launch and is still used today.
Following the accident, the mysterious cause of death caused some concern in the West. This had been the longest spaceflight yet, and it was thought that this may have been the cause. Once the cause was established, NASA began to also use pressure suits during launch and re-entry.
Our endeavors in space have led to multiple deaths across various missions. But Dobrovolsky, Volkov, and Patsayev remain the only people to have ever died in space. A memorial to the three is located at the landing site of Soyuz 11, 550 kilometers (340 miles) northeast of Baikonur Cosmodrome where they launched from.
And even if their names are not that well-known, they live on in the form of craters on the Moon, a plaque left by Apollo 15, and a group of hills in Pluto. Soyuz 11 highlighted the dangers of space but led to measures that kept future astronauts safe.