Only Three People Have Ever Died In Space, And You've Probably Never Heard Of Them

From left to right: Patsayev, Dobrovolskiy, and Volkov. TASS/Sovfoto/NASA

Jonathan O`Callaghan 18 Aug 2017, 12:18

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.

An image of Salyut 1 taken by the Soyuz 11 crew after undocking, not long before they died. Viktor Patsayev

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.

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