When dealing with Soviet space history of the Sixties and Seventies great caution must be taken. Unlike NASA, the Soviets were highly secretive about their space programme. Many details were not revealed for decades, with various personal accounts and seemingly official reports only starting to appear this millennium when fear of reprimand was no longer apparent.
And so, the story of Vladimir Komarov is a confusing one. A dedicated cosmonaut, there are conflicting reports about Komarov’s last moments, some painting his Soviet superiors as ruthless task masters intent on outdoing the Americans in space, others portraying them in a much kinder manner.
Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov was born in Moscow, USSR on 16 March 1927. He trained and qualified as an engineer before being selected in the first group of cosmonauts in 1960. Despite twice being registered unfit to fly when part of the Soviet space programme, he persevered and eventually got his first taste of space aboard Voskhod 1 on 12 October 1964. This was the seventh manned Soviet space flight and the first spacecraft in human history to take more than one crewman into orbit; Komarov travelled with two civilian cosmonauts Konstantin Feoktistov and Boris Yegorov, all three having replaced the previous crew supposedly because the former command pilot’s mother was Jewish, which was heavily frowned upon by the Soviets.
Following the successful mission, which spent about a day in orbit, Komarov was assigned to the Soviet Soyuz programme with Yuri Gagarin, the fist man in space, and Alexei Leonov, who performed humanity’s first spacewalk in 1965. Komarov was selected to fly Soyuz 1 in 1967 with Gagarin as his backup. Preparations for the launch were reportedly troubled, with Komarov arguing with engineers about the safety of the spacecraft. A cause for contention is that Komarov supposedly feared for his life ahead of the mission but, not wanting his good friend Gagarin to perish instead, he went ahead with the flight.
Immediately after launch on 23 April 1967 it was apparent there were significant problems with Soyuz 1. Its solar panels failed to fully deploy, depriving Komarov of full control of the spacecraft, while the engines also encountered problems. After 18 orbits of Earth Komarov attempted a manual re-entry of the spacecraft using the Sun as an orientation tool but, as he tore through the atmosphere, both the main and the drogue parachute failed. Komarov was left helpless inside the capsule and, in the early hours of 24 April 1967, Soyuz 1 crash-landed near the border between Russia and Kazakhstan and instantly killed its solitary crewmember.
There is much controversy surrounding Komarov’s final moments. Some reports say that he remained calm and collected as he communicated with ground control while plummeting towards Earth. Others, however, suggest a much more gruesome end, one in which Komarov is heard screaming in rage at his superiors for having put him in a spacecraft that was destined to fail from the outset. Indeed, the audio transcripts of his final moments suggest he was both distressed and panicked as it became readily apparent that his return to Earth would prove fatal.
It is likely that this story, like so many from the Soviet space programme, will forever be shrouded in mystery. What cannot be denied, however, is the incredible courage of this cosmonaut who knew that Soyuz 1 would be a perilous mission, even if he did not know it would prove fatal. Komarov’s death had a profound effect on his fellow cosmonauts, particularly Leonov and Gagarin who both regarded him as a close friend. A memorial at the crash site of Soyuz 1 provides a lasting legacy for Vladimir Komarov, the first casualty of human space exploration but a pioneer whose efforts allowed us to continue to reach for the stars.