The three cosmonauts sat in the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 11 on Sunday, June 6, 1971, awaiting lift-off from their Tyuratam base in Kazakhstan. The mission was to send the trio into orbit to meet up with and man the first-ever space station. However, the men on board Soyuz 11 – 43-year-old commander Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, 35, and Viktor Patsayev, 37 – were actually a back-up crew. The original team had been grounded for medical reasons. Looking back, they could consider themselves to have had a lucky escape. For little did the three about to be blasted into space know that they would enter the history books for both triumphant and tragic reasons.
For the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, the Soyuz 11 mission was of the highest propagandic importance. The communist state had recently achieved a first in its intense space race with the U.S. The Soviets had successfully launched the first ever space station – Salyut 1 – into orbit around the Earth in mid April 1971. But Soyuz 10, launched just days later with three cosmonauts on board, had failed in its objective to dock with Salyut 1.
This made the Soyuz 11 project all the more significant as the Soviets were eager to show the world that its space program was still on track. The intense rivalry known as the space race had started off with a win for the Soviet Union in October 1957, when it successfully fired Sputnik 1 – the first satellite – into Earth orbit. This was followed by further Sputnik missions – including Sputnik 2 in November 1957, which carried Laika the dog, making her the first living creature to orbit the planet. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
But in the following years, the U.S. got its own space program off the ground. Its National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA – accomplished a great deal in the 1960s, including the first manned flight to the moon, Apollo 11, in 1969. This saw American astronaut Neil Armstrong become the first man to set foot on the lunar surface. So by 1971, the Soviets were more than keen to show that its objective to have a sustainably operational space station in orbit was achievable.
But in fact the mission did not get off to the best of starts. Four days before the scheduled Soyuz 11 blast-off, the original crew underwent a routine medical check at Moscow’s Institute for Biomedical Problems. Unexpectedly, one of the party – Valeri Kubasov – was found to have a dark area on his lung. Soviet medics felt this may have been an early sign of tuberculosis. The decision was taken to ground the whole crew and replace them with Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev.
Despite this initial hiccup, and the fact that the replacement cosmonauts had only received four months of training for the mission, things then progressed as planned. The Soyuz 11 take-off went without incident and the next day the spacecraft had arrived at the Salyut 1 space station. Now it was time for the three intrepid cosmonauts to dock with the space facility.
Unlike the Soyuz 10 crew of the previous mission, Dobrovolsky and his men were able to successfully dock with Salyut 1. But there was an ominous sign there to greet them. When the cosmonauts first entered the space station, the air inside was foul with a strong burning smell. After making repairs to the ventilation system, the trio returned to Soyuz 11 for 24 hours before venturing back into the space station.
The cosmonauts then spent more than three weeks on Salyut 1, carrying out a range of mind and body experiments for the scientists back on Earth. One important task was to assess the physical impact of this long period spent in the weightless conditions of space. For one related exercise, the cosmonauts actually used a gym treadmill aboard Salyut 1, although it apparently made the whole vessel shake when in use.
The three men also made regular live TV broadcasts so that Soviet citizens, as well as people around the world, could follow their historic progress around the planet. And the mission was not without incident. On day 11, an alarmed Volkov radioed his superiors alerting them to smoke aboard the space station. Fortunately, the burning vapor turned out to have come from one malfunctioning piece of equipment and the situation was quickly resolved.
Nevertheless, the cosmonauts ended up clocking 23 days in orbit – a remarkable feat at the time. No human had ever spent this long in space before. The previous record had been 18 days and was set by two cosmonauts aboard Soyuz 9 in 1970. The record set by the crew of Soyuz 11 was to stand for two years until it was surpassed by the U.S. Skylab 2 mission in 1973. Its astronauts spent a total of 28 days in space.
Now at the end of their operational activities aboard Salyut 1, Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev prepared themselves for the return journey to the Soviet Union. The cosmonauts moved their log books, film recordings and all the scientific data they had amassed back to the Soyuz spacecraft in readiness to fly back into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The cosmonauts successfully separated their spaceship from Salyut 1. After three orbits of the Earth back onboard Soyuz 11, the men prepared for their descent back to the planet’s surface. Using the crew’s call signal, “Yantar,” mission control radioed, “Good bye, Yantar, till we see you soon on mother Earth.” In reply, Dobrovolsky simply signed off, “Thank you, be seeing you.”
As scheduled, Soyuz 11 now set off its retro rockets automatically and these burned for a timed seven minutes. The craft’s parachutes streamed correctly on release as the descent module fell towards the Earth’s surface. Everything seemed to be going just as planned, but there was a cause for concern for mission control. Try as they might, they found that they could not raise the crew on the radio.
The Soyuz 11 capsule fell to the ground in a remote area of Kazakhstan. Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev had been ordered not to try and exit the landed craft themselves. The cosmonauts had been instructed to wait for ground crew and medics to reach their position when the trio would be assisted from the module. The recovery unit soon reached the capsule and got its hatch open as quickly as possible. And it turned out that the three cosmonauts did indeed need help vacating the vessel.
A Russian official, Kerim Kerimov, was later quoted in the specialist title Space Safety Magazine. “Outwardly, there was no damage whatsoever,” he said in an article from 2013. “[The recovery team] knocked on the side, but there was no response from within. On opening the hatch, they found all three men in their couches, motionless, with dark-blue patches on their faces and trails of blood from their noses and ears.”
Frantically, the recovery crew then extracted the three cosmonauts from the module and laid them out on the ground. Commander Dobrovolsky’s body was still warm. The medics began to administer CPR but sadly this life-saving procedure was to no avail. Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev were all dead, and were far beyond any medical help.
The tragedy was total. The three men, it seemed, had been asphyxiated as their descent module had sped towards the Earth’s atmosphere. In other words, the cosmonauts had died while they were still in outer space. The cause of their deaths had been a faulty air valve. It had failed as the re-entry capsule had separated from the main craft at an altitude of about 104 miles.
This valve failure had turned the inside of the cosmonauts’ capsule into an airless vacuum. This, of course, is an environment in which no human can survive for long. Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev would have been incapacitated within seconds and dead within as little as one minute. The cause of death given in the resulting autopsy work was hemorrhage of blood vessels in the brain. In fact, these three men are the only humans ever to have died in outer space. All other space flight tragedies have occurred within the Earth’s atmosphere.
Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev were posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union gold stars. Their bodies were displayed in open coffins laid out in honor at Moscow’s Central House of the Soviet Army. Many thousands of ordinary Muscovites came to pay their final respects to the fallen cosmonauts. So too did a shaken Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at the time.
The Soyuz 11 disaster was to have a lasting impact on not only the Soviet space program but America’s too. It was soon recognized that the three cosmonauts would have survived if only they had been wearing pressurized space suits. Both superpowers changed protocols so that space travelers would always wear such protection when there was any chance of decompression. However, it remains a fact that being an intrepid pioneer carries inherent dangers, as Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev found out.