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Space and Physics

Vladimir Komarov: The Cosmonaut Launched Into Space Knowing He Wouldn't Come Back Alive

author

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockMar 9 2022, 10:20 UTC
A plaque on the moon, commemorating fallen astronauts and cosmonauts, including Komarov

A plaque on the moon, commemorating fallen astronauts and cosmonauts, including Komarov. Image credit: Public domain via NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

You probably know the story of Yuri Gagarin, who, on 12 April 1961, became the first human to go to outer space.

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Though he never flew again, Gagarin's career in the Soviet space program was far from over. In 1967, his expertise was called upon for a flight by his colleague and friend, Vladimir Komarov, on which he was to be the backup cosmonaut should any of the crew be unable to fly.

The Soviet Union was about to celebrate its 50th anniversary – and to mark the occasion, they decided that balloons and a nice bit of cake weren't quite enough. They were going to have to unnecessarily risk the lives of several cosmonauts.

The plan was to send two spacecraft into orbit. Soyuz 1, containing Komarov, would launch first, and wait for a day for the arrival of the unimaginatively named Soyuz 2. The ships would then meet, and Komarov would do a spacewalk, crawling out of his own craft and into Soyuz 2. One of the two cosmonauts aboard Soyuz 2 would then enter Soyuz 1 before both ships departed for Earth. 

However, months before the planned launch it became apparent that it would not go well. When the craft was inspected over 200 structural problems were found – problems that they both knew would end in the pilot's death.

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A 10-page memo was reportedly made listing the faults. Nobody, presumably for fear of adding their own name to the future death toll of the mission, would take the memo to leader Leonid Brezhnev.

For his part, the KGB friend Gagarin gave the note to was reportedly banned from talking to anyone affiliated with the space program.

Komarov's friends attempted to convince him to refuse to fly the craft, figuring that the consequences of that are less severe than assured death. However, Komarov knew that if he were to pull out, they would send his friend Gagarin. Komarov refused to pull out, even knowing that it likely meant his death.

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Instead, Komarov plotted a minor act of revenge on the people who were sending him to his death. He reportedly requested that should anything go wrong, he have an open-casket funeral.

On launch day, Gagarin did not act according to usual protocol, demanding a pressure suit before going down to the launchpad to talk with Komarov. It's possible he was trying to delay the launch enough to get it canceled, but if that was his plan it didn't work. Komarov was launched, and made it to space inside the craft. Once there, however, things quickly went wrong when one of the solar panels failed to open, leaving his craft with little power.

The space agency ordered his descent, but his capsule began to spin: he would have no way to control his landing. 

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And so it was that the Soviet Union celebrated 50 years by listening to a man curse and scream as he hurtled to his entirely preventable death, before having a state funeral, displaying his charred corpse for all to see.


Space and Physics
  • history,

  • space travel,

  • Soviet Union,

  • cosmonauts

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