While we all know about the rivalry between Russia and America, it only seems to fair to call these two most powerful nations have never bounced a chance to be ahead in the race. Especially after World War I when the space race was the next step towards becoming the most powerful nation in the world and Russia and America were not prepared to let either win. But in the cold war space race, one cosmonaut become the center of attraction when he got named ‘A Man who fell from space.’ This is his story.
The tragic death of Vladimir Komarov, the man who fell from space
An exceptional Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov probably knew that he was going to die before stepping inside Soyuz 1, yet he boarded the spacecraft- but why? Although Komarov was an experienced pilot, the Soyuz 1 mission was allegedly rushed. The spacecraft had possibly hundreds of errors at the time of launch, but rumors had it that it was deliberately ignored by the high-ranking Soviet officials despite several engineers’ warnings. While much of Komarov’s death is shrouded in mystery it is indeed the price the Soviet Union paid for progress.
Born in 1927, Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov was an aviation and aeronautics fanatic since childhood. Before he ever dreamt of reaching the Russian space agency, he worked as a farmer in the aftermath of World War 2. He joined the Soviet air force in 1942 when he was just 15 years old. Later in 1959, he graduated from Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy. He then prepared to become a cosmonaut and soon he become one among the only 18 men selected to train in this field.
In 1964, Vladimir successfully piloted Voskhod 1, it was the first vessel to carry more than one person into space. He soon became a well-respected cosmonaut at the agency. But despite the talent he had, Vladimir was not allowed to go to space as the age bar for the program was 27 while Komarov was over 32 when he entered the agency. He was declared medically unfit for spaceflight twice while he was in the program but continued playing an active role. He tremendously contributed to space vehicle design, cosmonaut training, evaluation, and public relations. But during this time, he continued applying for future space programs, and finally, in 1967, his request was accepted.
It was the 50th anniversary of the Communist Revolution and the Soviet Union was preparing to plan a special event for the occasion. And Komarov seemed to be the perfect man to carry it out. It was an ambitious space mission where 2 space capsules Soyuz1 and Soyuz2 were to rendezvous in low-Earth orbit. One capsule will carry two cosmonauts while another capsule will carry a single cosmonaut. Komarov was to park one capsule next to the other in space and then would spacewalk between the two crafts. The Soviet Union and the then-president were very excited about the mission and thus does not want any delay in it.
The mission was set for the 50th anniversary of the Communist Revolution, and this was the problem. According to the reports, Komarov’s spacecraft Soyuz 1 was riddled with “203 structural problems” that became evident before the flight. The agency was not ready to send the two-space craft in space in such a short period, thus they asked to postpone the mission on multiple occasions, but all their pleas were deliberately ignored. The president was adamant to carry out the mission on the exact same day.
Komarov’s dear friend and backup pilot Gagarin argued that the mission should be canceled or postponed and for this he also wrote a 10-page memo and handed it to Venyamin Russayev, a friend of the KGB, but this was also ignored. Many engineers came forward to give warnings but none of that was heard. While Komarov had the liberty to back out from the mission, he chose not to. Then, Gagarin would be forced to pilot the spacecraft and Komarov knew that it was too risky.
On April 23, 1967, Komarov took off on his ill-fated space journey. He knew that this could result in his first and last space flight, but he was prepared to board. For the first few minutes, everything was alright but as soon as the Soyuz 1 reached orbit, it started malfunctioning. Komarov orbited at least 16 times around earth orbit in 24 hours but then his two solar panels that supplied energy for the maneuverer failed to deploy. All the appliances were shut down and the temperature inside the capsule started increasing.
Though Komarov could be saved if the second capsule that was scheduled to launch the next day wouldn’t be canceled. Witnessing the malfunction of Soyuz 1, the Soviet Union decided to cancel the launch of Soyuz 2 and asked Komarov to return to earth. It took two more trips for Komarov around the world before he was finally able to reenter. But little did he know, that during his struggle with rentry, his parachute lines had gotten tangled. When he reached the altitude of 23,000 feet, the parachutes failed to open and the temperature started rising, soon the shuttle hit the ground and exploded killing Komarov and making him the first known man to die in spaceflight.
When the site was searched, nothing remained other than an irregular lump 30 centimeters (12 in) in diameter and 80 centimeters (31 in) long of Komarov’s melted body. This way Komarov became known as ‘The man who fell from space’. His tragic story is a testament to the Soviet Union’s rushed decision and the ruins of the cold war space race.