Vladimir Komarov was a test pilot, aeronautical engineer, and cosmonaut for the Soviet Union. He oversaw the first manned space mission, Voskhod 1, in October 1964. He was chosen to pilot the first crewed test flight of the Soyuz 1 and made history as the first Soviet cosmonaut to travel in space twice.
When the parachute on his Soyuz spacecraft failed upon re-entry on April 24, 1967, he became the first person to perish during a space mission.
During his time in the program, he was twice deemed medically unsuitable for training or spaceflight, but that didn’t stop him from being an active participant. When he was a part of the cosmonaut training center’s staff, he helped with space vehicle design, cosmonaut training, assessment, and public relations.
The Early Life of Vladimir Komarov
With his half-sister Matilda, Komarov was raised in Moscow after his birth on March 16, 1927. His father was a laborer who took odd jobs for poor pay to make ends meet. In the school year 1935, Komarov enrolled in the local primary school.
His success in this area demonstrated his innate mathematical ability. However, war and the German invasion of the Soviet Union forced Komarov to drop out of school in 1941, and he went to work on a communal farm. He had an early passion for aviation, building model planes and even his propeller and collecting aviation periodicals and images.
Komarov decided to become a pilot when he was fifteen, enrolling in the “1st Moscow Special Air Force School” in 1942. Not long after, Komarov discovered that his dad had been killed in an ambiguous action on the eastern front. When the Germans invaded, it became necessary to relocate the aviation school to the Tyumen area of Siberia for the rest of the war.
Beyond aviation, students were also exposed to other disciplines, such as biology and languages. In 1945, Komarov completed pilot training. However, World War II concluded before Komarov was called up for duty.
After starting his training at the Chkalov Higher Air Force School in Borisoglebsk, Voronezh Oblast, in 1946, Komarov completed his education at A.K. Serov Military Aviation College in Bataisk. Komarov’s mother passed away in 1948, only seven months after he obtained his pilot’s wings, and was appointed as a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force in 1949.
Tenure in the Soviet Air Force
In December 1949, Komarov flew a fighter jet with the Grozny-based 383rd Regiment of the 42nd North Caucasian Fighter Air Division.
In October 1950, Komarov wed Valentina Yakovlevna Kiselyova, and in 1952, he was promoted to the rank of senior lieutenant and sent to the Prikarpate Region to serve as the division’s head pilot for the 486th Fighter Aviation Regiment, part of the 279th Fighter Air Division.
After serving as a pilot until 1954, Komarov decided to pursue an education in engineering at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy. In 1959, Komarov was given a promotion that allowed him to become a senior lieutenant engineer. In the latter part of that year, he finally fulfilled his dream of working as a test pilot for the Central Scientific Research Institute in Chkalovsky.
Soyuz 1 Accident
The film Starman depicts the relationship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to go to space and a hero in the Soviet Union. The two guys became good friends via shared hunting, drinking, and socializing interests.
Both men knew the space capsule was unsafe when they were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission in 1967. Komarov had confided in his friends that he expected to perish very soon. And since he didn’t want Gagarin to die, he wouldn’t back down.
Gagarin was the proposed successor.
The narrative started around 1967 when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev devised a plan to arrange a dramatic mid-space rendezvous between two Soviet spacecraft.
The objective was to send Komarov into space on the Soyuz 1 spacecraft. The following day, a second spacecraft would launch with two more cosmonauts; these ships would eventually meet, dock, and Komarov would crawl from one ship to the other, trading places with a colleague, before returning home in the second ship.
It would be a great victory for the Soviet Union on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution, Brezhnev thought. Brezhnev made his intentions known, and this event occurred as planned.
Gagarin was the trump card. Already a national hero in the Soviet Union for becoming the first human being in space, he and the other top technicians who had assessed the Soyuz 1 had discovered 203 structural flaws, which would have made the spacecraft very hazardous to the pilot. Gagarin proposed delaying the mission.
In a letter, Yuri Gagarin had voiced concerns about the spacecraft’s design and production to Leonid Brezhnev on behalf of Komarov and his fellow cosmonauts. Still, they had not received any responses, and the cosmonauts were becoming more nervous.
Zero-G testing revealed that the Soyuz module hatch was too tiny to enable a safe departure for a fully equipped cosmonaut. The following month Komarov argued with other engineers about continued design concerns.
In 1967, Komarov was chosen as the Soyuz 1’s commander, with Yuri Gagarin serving as his backup astronaut. Both cosmonauts put in twelve- to fourteen-hour work days leading up to the launch.
It was unclear who would break the news to Brezhnev. Nobody dared transmit Gagarin’s 10-page message up the line of command, so he delivered it to his closest KGB friend, Benyamin Russayev. Including Russayev, everyone who read the memorandum was immediately demoted, sacked, or exiled to diplomatic Siberia.
Since there was less than a month to liftoff, Komarov knew that delaying the launch was out of the question. The now-fired KGB operative, Russayev, was there when Komarov told him, “I’m not going to make it back from this trip.”
‘Why not refuse?’ Russayev questioned. If I can’t make this trip, they’ll send the backup pilot instead,” Komarov allegedly said. I’m referring to Yuri Gagarin. No way would Vladimir Komarov be able to hurt his buddy like that. “That’s Yura,” he is said to have said in the book, “and he’ll die in my place. We need to look after him.” Then, Komarov lost it and started crying.
Russian writer Yaroslav Golovanov claims that despite no one expecting him to fly, Gagarin showed up at the launch site on April 23, 1967, and demanded to be placed into a spacesuit. Though Golovanov dismissed Gagarin’s actions as “a spontaneous caprice,” several onlookers later assumed he was attempting to force his way onboard the airplane to rescue his comrade. With Komarov on board the Soyuz, it blasted off from Earth.
The Fateful Journey
Unfortunately, the Soyuz module’s solar panels did not wholly deploy during orbital insertion, leaving the spacecraft without enough power and blocking several navigation instruments. What Komarov found out “We are in the wrong place right now. All in-cabin readings are within an acceptable range. However, the left solar panel failed to open. There are only 13 or 14 amps on the electrical bus. Communication on the HF (high frequency) band is down.
“The spaceship will not allow me to face the sun. I attempted the DO-1 orientation engines to orient the spacecraft manually, but the pressure on the DO-1 is now only 180.” After five hours of trying, Komarov could not position the Soyuz module.
As a result of the failure of the high-frequency transmitter, which was supposed to maintain radio contact when the ship was out of range of the ultra-high frequency (UHF) ground receivers, the spacecraft lost contact on orbits 13 through 15, and it began relaying inaccurate status information.
Due to technical difficulties, the Soviet Union aborted the mission rather than launch the second Soyuz module from which the cosmonauts were supposed to conduct an EVA to the Soyuz 1.
Between orbits 15 and 17, Komarov was directed to use the ion flow sensors to re-orient the vehicle. Ion sensors did not work. Komarov could only have prepared for a manual re-entry in orbit 19. For Komarov to manually orient the ship, he needed to be able to view the Sun via the Vzor periscope. The retro-fire had to occur on the planet’s dark side so the spacecraft could reach the planned landing spot in Orsk.
Komarov manually positioned the spacecraft on the day side, then utilized the gyro-platform as a reference to orient the ship for a night side retro-fire. On his nineteenth orbit, he re-entered Earth’s atmosphere without incident.
However, the module’s drogue and the main braking parachute did not open properly. At 6:24 a.m., the module fell to the ground and killed its pilot, Komarov.
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Nikolai Kamanin wrote in his journal that Komarov’s corpse had been reduced to an uneven mass of 30 centimeters (12 inches) in diameter and 80 centimeters (31 inches) in length after the Soyuz 1 spacecraft had fallen into the earth at a speed of 30-40 meters per second (98-131 feet per second).
Keldysh, Tyulin, Rudenko, and other members of the State Commission arrived at the accident scene three hours after it had happened.
The remains of Komarov were taken to the Orsk airport at 21:45, where Kamanin was there to help load them into an Il-18. Kuznetsov and a few other cosmonauts arrived in an An-12 ten minutes before takeoff. Before dawn, the next day, Kamanin’s plane touched down in Moscow.
All of the airfields around Moscow were blocked for takeoffs and landings. Thus, the aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in Sheremetyevo.
By Konstantin Vershinin’s instructions, Komarov’s body was to be photographed before being incinerated for a later state burial in the Kremlin wall. They performed a rapid autopsy that morning and then burned the remains.
On April 25th, Pravda published a statement about Komarov’s death written by his fellow cosmonauts “Those who go before usually have it harder. They go along roads less traveled, which are seldom smooth and often fraught with peril.
“The problem is that you’ll never want to come back down once you ride the elevator to space. And no amount of hardship or opposition is ever enough to deter such a guy from his course. As long as his heart is pumping, a cosmonaut will never stop testing the limits of space and time. In the beginning, Vladimir Komarov was one of the pioneers to go down this perilous road.”
During an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda published on May 17, Yuri Gagarin alluded to the administration’s failure to listen to the concerns about the Soyuz module that the cosmonaut corps had identified.
He maintained that Komarov’s death should teach the establishment to be more rigorous in its testing and evaluation of spacecraft “all the spaceship’s workings, paying even closer attention to the testing and checking phases, and keeping a sharp eye out for the unexpected.
“He has shown the precarious nature of our space travel route. We may take strength from his escape and his death.”
Gagarin and Leonov wanted Kamanin to reference program chief Vasily Mishin in the official accident report in May 1967 because of his “low understanding of the Soyuz spacecraft and the mechanics of its functioning, his lack of cooperation in working with the cosmonauts in flight and training operations.”
In memory of Komarov, a state funeral was held. The crash just left him with a chipped heel bone. After waiting for three weeks, Yuri Gagarin visited his KGB pal. He wanted a discussion on the recent events. According to the book’s description:
Gagarin and Russayev met in the latter’s home, but the former was too paranoid about talking in any of the rooms. Since neither the elevators nor the lobby was considered safe, the two guys had to make their way up and down the apartment building’s reverberant stairwells.
Compared to the carefree young guy of 1961, Gagarin in 1967 was drastically different. The responsibility for Komarov’s death was crushing. “I have to see the main guy [Brezhnev] in person,” Gagarin declared at one point. Not convincing Brezhnev to call off Komarov’s launch had left him feeling hopeless and dejected.
Gagarin’s wrath was palpable in the moments before he departed. “If I discover that Brezhnev was aware of the situation but still let it unfold, I will take swift and decisive action,” Russayev says, “As for what Yuri meant by it, I can only speculate. Perhaps a solid slap to the face would do the trick.” Specifically, around Brezhnev, Russayev cautioned Gagarin to tread carefully. “I advised him to consult with me before taking any action. I’m advising you to use extreme caution.”
After this, the writers relate a myth that has never been confirmed (and seems entirely implausible to me): that Gagarin once had a moment with Brezhnev and tossed a drink in his face.
RIP Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov
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