The men stared at the Soyuz 11 in silence. Upon the man’s face, a troubled uncertainty etched its lines. Beside him, a fellow recovery team member knelt, mirroring his emotions.
The Soyuz 11 capsule had just returned from an unparalleled 23-day stay at the world’s inaugural space station, and both men had been eagerly awaiting the triumphant return of the famed cosmonauts—Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev—whose exploits had captivated Soviet Russia in June 1971 like a tempest.
However, their elation turned to apprehension as they gently rapped on the capsule, only to be met with a haunting silence that sent shivers down their spines. Undeterred, they proceeded to open the hatch, and what greeted their eyes inside was a scene that defied description—a tableau of unimaginable horror.
The three cosmonauts were lifeless in their seats, their faces adorned with ominous blue splotches and blood seeping from their noses and ears.
June 30, 1971, marked a tragic milestone for humanity as it confronted the first—and thus far, only—confirmed deaths to occur in the unforgiving expanse of space.
What Was the Soyuz 11 and What is its Story?
From its inception, the Soyuz 11 mission bore the weight of an unfortunate destiny. In the aftermath of Neil Armstrong’s momentous lunar landing, the Soviets abandoned their lunar exploration plans, favoring instead an Earth-orbiting space station—Salyut 1, launched in April 1971.
However, the initial crew’s failed attempt to dock with the station during the Soyuz 10 mission necessitated a second try, to be carried out by Alexei Leonov, the world’s first spacewalker, alongside Valeri Kubasov and Pyotr Kolodin.
Yet, a mere three days before liftoff, a routine examination revealed an alarming swelling on Kubasov’s right lung, raising concerns about tuberculosis. As a precaution, the entire crew was replaced by their backups.
Subsequently, it was discovered that Kubasov’s condition was merely the result of a pollen allergy, but the higher-ups stood firm in their decision. The cosmonauts were devastated; Kolodin, overwhelmed with frustration and anger, sought solace in alcohol, venting his emotions in tears.
Meanwhile, the backup crew faced the daunting task of embarking on the longest space mission ever attempted.
In his memoir, “Two Sides of the Moon,” Leonov recounted the prevailing dread that permeated the astronauts’ hearts. As an accomplished artist, he sketched Patsayev the night before his launch, affectionately naming it “Patsayev’s Eyes.”
Evidently, the normally composed mechanical engineer—considered a Renaissance man in the cosmonaut corps for his love of literature and music and whose father had heroically defended Moscow during World War II—was visibly burdened.
Taking the helm as the new commander of Soyuz 11 was Dobrovolski, a fighter pilot and skilled parachutist. In his youth, he suffered at the hands of Nazi assailants who brutally injured his fingers as punishment for assisting resistance fighters with ammunition and messages.
During cosmonaut training in the isolation chamber, this devoted family man passed the time by crafting a tiny wooden doll for his daughter.
On the other hand, Volkov, the lively member of the replacement crew, possessed prior spaceflight experience. An adept athlete and boxer, this wiry aeronautical engineer would go on to become the first accredited journalist in space.
During the Soyuz 11 mission, his rugged charm earned him a status as a pinup icon among Russian women.
What Happened to the Soyuz 11 Spacecraft?
Following its launch on June 6, 1971, Soyuz 11 embarked on an uneventful daylong journey to Salyut 1, where the three cosmonauts boarded the new space station, encountering a few challenges.
Over the next three weeks, they diligently conducted various experiments, tending to Chinese cabbage and bulb onions, capturing spectrograms of celestial bodies, and photographing snow and ice along the river Volga. Their endeavors even earned them a coveted spot-on Soviet evening television.
However, despite their accomplishments, genuine contentment remained elusive. The taxing and disjointed shift work transformed into a grueling marathon, a monotony lamented by Dobrovolski in his ever-present diary.
Moreover, an overheating instrument caused smoke to engulf part of the station, testing the cosmonauts’ nerves and their ability to maintain cohesiveness as a crew. Amidst these challenges, a glimmer of harmony returned when Patsayev became the first man to celebrate his birthday in space, and his fellow crew members surprised him with a special meal of veal, cookies, and blackberry juice.
Regrettably, little did they know that it would be Patsayev’s final birthday.
Late on June 29, Soyuz 11 finally undocked from Salyut 1. Three hours later, having successfully completed their primary mission, the cosmonauts ignited the ship’s engine to initiate their return journey to Earth. In a lighthearted moment, Volkov humorously requested that the flight controllers ensure a supply of cognac—a customary welcome-home gift—awaited them at their landing site.
As they descended, just twenty-nine minutes before touchdown and at an altitude of approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers), explosive charges were deliberately activated to separate Soyuz 11’s orbital and instrument modules.
Now, the bell-shaped capsule was their sole defense against the impending fiery re-entry.
The Soyuz 11 Mission Goes Wrong
The unfolding events took a swift and tragic turn.
Upon the ejection of the other modules, the crew capsule’s internal pressure rapidly plummeted, leading to a swift and perilous loss of air from Soyuz 11. In a desperate attempt to locate the source of the leak, Dobrovolski, and Volkov unstrapped from their seats, their health trackers registering alarming spikes in heart rates as they searched for answers.
However, time was not on their side. Within a mere 50 seconds, Patsayev’s pulse declined to levels indicative of oxygen deprivation, and within 110 seconds, the lives of all three cosmonauts were tragically extinguished.
At this juncture, Mission Control remained unaware of the gravity of the situation. As their attempts to establish contact with the crew through VHF radio met with unyielding silence, an unsettling sense of unease pervaded the control room.
A mere twenty-two minutes before touchdown, military radar detected the swiftly descending capsule entering Soviet airspace. Communication remained an impossibility due to the capsule’s re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, encased in super-heated plasma, shielding it from all external communications.
The Grim Discoveries of the Soyuz 11 Crew: The Only Confirmed Deaths in Space
As the minutes dragged on, a glimmer of hope flickered prematurely when the capsule’s drogue parachute unfurled automatically, followed by the deployment of the main canopy. With just ten minutes remaining before touchdown, helicopter crews caught sight of the undamaged Soyuz 11, gently swaying beneath the seemingly flawless parachute.
Despite the absence of communication from the crew, Mission Control was momentarily elated as the helicopter commander reported the successful landing and the recovery team prepared to descend nearby.
They envisioned a moment of triumphant reunion, expecting to open the hatch and welcome the cosmonauts home, surrounded by the familiar scents of Earth after their three-week absence.
However, their hopes were shattered when the search and rescue personnel reached Soyuz 11, only to find the three cosmonauts slumped motionless inside. Dark, bruise-like marks covered their faces while blood seeped from their noses and ears.
Dobrovolski’s body still retained some warmth, but all attempts at resuscitation proved futile.
The grim reality became evident when the rescuers made their first contact with Mission Control, conveying the heart-wrenching message through a series of numbers—1-1-1. This code signified the health status of each cosmonaut.
One sequence spelled the tragic truth: Dobrovolski, Volkov, and Patsayev had all perished. Unlike the theory of the lost cosmonauts in space, or the horrifying death of Vladimir Komarov, this was the first instance the Soviet Union had to face the shame, horror, and scrutiny of the world and the Soviet people.
Official Conclusions and Funerals of the Soyuz 11 Crew
It was clear right once that the cosmonauts had died of asphyxiation. The breathing ventilation valve that had been jolted open as the descent module disengaged from the service module 12 minutes and 3 seconds after the retrofire was the source of the malfunction. It was situated between the orbital module and the descent module.
Subsequent investigations pinpointed a faulty valve that had inadvertently opened during the separation of the orbital and instrument modules as the cause of the fatal incident. Without a means to repair the leak, the cosmonauts faced insurmountable odds.
Explosive bolts intended to detonate one after the other were used to hold the two modules together, but they actually detonated simultaneously. An automatic adjustment of the cabin pressure was typically possible thanks to a seal that was typically abandoned subsequently. Still, it was made free by the explosive power of the simultaneous bolt fire.
The valve opened at 168 km (104 mi) above sea level, and the subsequent loss of pressure caused death in less than a minute. Identifying and stopping the valve before the air was lost because it was hidden beneath the seats was impossible
According to flight recorder data, the only cosmonaut equipped with biomedical sensors experienced cardiac arrest within 40 seconds of the pressure drop. The cabin pressure was 0 15 minutes and 35 seconds after the retrofire and stayed that way until the spacecraft impacted the atmosphere of Earth.
Patsayev may have been trying to seal or block the valve when he lost consciousness because his body was discovered next to it. However, medical professionals swiftly came to the conclusion that the cosmonauts had died of asphyxiation after a thorough examination was carried out to examine all Soyuz 11 systems and components that could have contributed to the catastrophe.
The cosmonauts’ autopsies at Burdenko Military Hospital revealed that their brain hemorrhaging—along with smaller amounts of bleeding under their skin, inner ears, and nasal cavities— ultimately killed them.
This hemorrhaging happened as a result of exposure to a vacuum environment, which caused the oxygen and nitrogen in their bloodstreams to bubble and rupture blood vessels. Heavy lactic acid concentrations were also observed in their blood.
Lactic acid buildup (in tissues and blood) is an indication of insufficient mitochondrial oxygenation, which may be caused by hypoxemia (low blood oxygen), poor blood flow (such as decompression), or a combination of the two.
As decompression started, they could have maintained consciousness for approximately 40 seconds, but less than 20 seconds would have passed before the effects of oxygen shortage rendered them incapable of functioning.
The catastrophe plunged the Soviet Union into a state of national mourning. Even the usually stoic Premier Leonid Brezhnev couldn’t hold back tears as he solemnly passed the men’s coffins.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, critical safety measures were implemented for future Soyuz missions. Sturdier valves, equipped with quick-action chokes to seal air leaks promptly, were introduced. Most significantly, all subsequent crews were mandated to wear pressure suits during launch and landing procedures.
United States President Richard Nixon released the official statement following the accident:
“The American people join in expressing to you and the Soviet people our deepest sympathy for the tragic deaths of the three Soviet cosmonauts. The whole world followed the exploits of these courageous explorers of the unknown and shares the anguish of their tragedy.”
But the achievements of cosmonauts Dobrovolsky, Volkov, and Patsayev remain. It will, I am sure, prove to have contributed greatly to the further achievements of the Soviet program for the exploration of space and, thus, to the widening of man’s horizons.
Thankfully, over the course of the last 50 years since that fateful day, every Soyuz crew has completed their missions safely, honoring the memory of the fallen cosmonauts and reaffirming humanity’s commitment to space exploration.
Next, read about the Story of the Time a German Fighter Spared a British Bomber Aircraft. Then, if you’re into horror and ghosts, read about the Ammons Family Haunting From 2011!
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