There’s something both chilling and deeply saddening about these images. I don’t post that much art that involves zombies or dead bodies– zombies and gore for the sake of gore fail to make me feel much of anything. Dead astronauts and cosmonauts are a different story.
I was born during the final decade of the Cold War and the fading glory of the Space Race. The fearless explorers who risked their lives to leave earth and venture into this unknown frontier were my heroes.
Logically, I knew that things didn’t always go well on these spaceflights– that’s part of what made these heroes so courageous. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred when I was two, and it was still regularly featured on the news as I grew old enough to understand what I was seeing.
Nevertheless, the news reports and dry accounts in history texts were thoroughly sanitized. We didn’t hear about the astronauts’ last moments, flaws and defects that had been identified prior to launch but written off as inconsequential, or the manner in which they died. It was implied that their deaths had been instantaneous, painless, and unpreventable (or nearly so.)
It wasn’t until I was doing research as an adult that I stumbled across the story of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.
The Man Who Fell From Space
Even if your texts covered the space race, chances are that Komarov’s name isn’t one you’re familiar with. That’s likely for two reasons: one, the sanitizing I referred to earlier. Two, the Soviet Union went to great lengths to keep their failures as unknown and unreported as possible. Many of these tragedies didn’t even come to light until after the fall of the USSR.
Chances are, the first cosmonaut that comes to mind is Yuri Gagarin. On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human in space by completing a single orbit and successfully returning to Earth in Vostok 1.
Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov occupies a less heralded spot in the history of the Space Race (at least, outside of the former USSR.) He was one of three crewmembers aboard the Voskhod 1 mission on October 12, 1964, which achieved a number of firsts: first space flight to carry more than one crewman into orbit, the first flight without the use of spacesuits, and the first to carry either an engineer or a physician into outer space. Voskhod 1 also set a manned spacecraft altitude record of 209 miles/336 km.
On April 23, 1967, Komarov was the sole crew member of the fatal Soyuz 1 test flight. The mission lasted 1 day, 2 hours, and 48 minutes, during which time Komarov completed 18 orbits of Earth.
During the flight almost everything that could go wrong, did. One of the craft’s solar panels refused to open, leaving Soyuz 1 underpowered and unable to perform a number of critical operations. During re-entry a fault in the landing parachute system caused the primary chute to fail, and the reserve chute became tangled with the drogue chute.
While the official autopsy states that Komarov died of blunt force trauma on impact, it’s impossible to tell for certain whether he survived the crash landing. The first rescuers to arrive spotted the module lying on its side. The retrorockets, which were supposed to activate prior to touchdown, began firing. By time the rescuers landed, the module was in flames with streams of molten metal dripping from the exterior.
Attempts to quell the fire were unsuccessful and the module eventually disintegrated, leaving only a pile of debris topped by the entry hatch. The rescuers allegedly found Komarov’s remains strapped into the center couch, although a photo from his funeral casts doubt on the validity of this claim (and, in fact, whether a conclusive autopsy was even possible.)
A Mistake of horrific proportions
The more I read about the doomed Soyuz 1 flight, the more horrified I became.
Scheduled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution and pushed forward despite an astounding number of known critical inadequacies, it’s widely agreed that Komarov knew this was not a mission he would return from. Yet, for reasons that are still under debate, he went anyway.
(One version of events states that his friend and national hero Yuri Gagarin was the alternate pilot, and would have been sent had Komarov stepped down. But KGB strong-arm tactics and threats of prison or worse may have also played a role in his decision.)
Eventually I came across this NPR article which filled in more of the blanks. An image from Komarov’s open casket funeral is just below the fold. (Content warning: if you have empathy or even a decent imagination, it’s something that will probably stick with you.)
The American side of the Space Race wasn’t without it’s own failures. On January 27, 1967, Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire that swept through the Apollo 1 spacecraft’s cabin during a ground test.
The investigation determined that the source of the fire was electrical. It spread rapidly due to combustible nylon material and the spacecraft’s pure oxygen atmosphere. Escape was made impossible by the inability to open the hatch cover against the greater-than-atmospheric internal pressure. The investigation identified design and construction flaws, procedural failings, inadequate safety procedures, and a critical failure to appreciate the hazard of a pure-oxygen atmosphere as contributing factors to the accident.
No one is Immune
At the end of the day, science isn’t always enough to protect us from our own worst tendencies. We can accomplish amazing feats through skill and perseverance, but we also have a record of condemning our heroes to horrific deaths in the name of cutting corners, saving money, and supporting egos.
For me, the deaths of astronauts and cosmonauts like Vladimir Komarov, Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee symbolize a horrific universal truth: that even our heroes are not safe from the effects of human error. These are the bugs in our metaphorical Matrix, the glitches coming for us all: the jet engines that disintegrate in flight. The faulty software upgrades. The undeclared hazardous materials rattling around in the belly of an aircraft during a commercial flight.
If our heroes aren’t safe, no one is.