The Terrible Fate of Vladimir Komarov and the Lost Cosmonauts

Soviet space propaganda poster that reads: “From student models- to space ships!”

Introduction

Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin

Background

A sidewalk surrounded by several large gray buildings. The closest has a large dome on top
Star City, also known as Zvyozdny Gorodok
A group of men in zip-up uniforms and several older men in suits posing for a photo
(Front left to right): Popovich, Gorbatko, Khrunov, Chief Designer Korolev,
Gagarin, Director Karpov, parachute instructor
Nikitin and physician Fyodorov; (Second row):
Leonov, Nikolayev, Rafikov, Zaikin, Volynov, Titov, Nelyubov, Bykovsky and Shonin;
(Third row): Filatyev, Anikeyev and Belyayev.
A young man in a military uniform posing for a serious portrait
Valentin Bondarenko (colorized by me, so probably not 100% accurate)

Valentin Bondarenko

A smiling woman holding a baby, and a man in uniform looking at them
Bondarenko, his wife Galina “Hanna”, and their son Alexandre

The Chamber of Silence

“It’s my fault… I’m so sorry… no one else is to blame.”

“I couldn’t help shuddering. The whole of him was burnt. The body was totally denuded of skin, the head of hair; there were no eyes in the face. … It was a total burn of the severest degree. But the patient was alive…. Unfortunately, Sergeyev was doomed. And yet, all of us were eager to do something, anything, to alleviate his terrible suffering.”

“Too much pain… do something please… to kill the pain.”

Aftermath

“With fond memories from your pilot friends.”

“I believe the cause of the accident should be announced for two reasons: first, so that people who still have no idea what happened may be consoled; second, so that scientists might be able to take the necessary precautions to prevent the same thing from ever happening again. On top of that, I believe the United States should be informed of what went wrong. After all, Americans, too, are engaged in the exploration of space.”

A gravestone with a side profile image of Bondarenko carved into it.
Valentin Bondarenko’s headstone. The new inscription is a different color.

Yuri Gagrin

Yuri Gagarin and his winning smile

Vladimir Komarov

Vladimir “Volodya” Komarov

Star City Training

“He was already an engineer when he joined us, but he never looked down on the others. He was warm-hearted, purposeful, and industrious. Volodya’s prestige was so high that people came to him to discuss all questions: personal as well as questions of our work.”

Komarov pouring a cup of tea for his wife. Their young daughter smiles in between them.
Komarov, his daughter Irina, and his wife Valentina

Voskhod 1 (1964)

Three men pose with their arms around each other in matching jackets, smiling
The crew (left to right): Feoktistov, Yeogorv, and Komarov.
Soyuz 1

Soyuz 1 (1967)

“Devil machine! Nothing I lay my hands on works!”

“Some launches were made almost exclusively for propaganda purposes. An example… was the ill-fated flight of Valdimir Komarov in Soyuz 1…. The management of the Design Bureau knew that the vehicle had not been completely debugged; more time was needed to make it operational. But the Communist Party ordered the launch despite the fact that four preliminary launches had revealed faults…”

“I’m not going to make it back from this flight.” Russayev asked, “If you’re so convinced you’re going to die, then why don’t you refuse the mission?”

Komarov reportedly said, crying,

“If I don’t make this flight they’ll send the backup pilot instead. That’s Yura, and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.”

Two men sitting in the grass wearing leather jackets and holding rifles, smiling at each other
Gagarin and Komarov

“Conditions are poor. The cabin parameters are normal, but the left solar panel didn’t deploy. The electrical bus is at only 13 to 14 amperes. The HF (high frequency) communications are not working. I cannot orient the spacecraft to the sun. I tried orienting the spacecraft manually using the DO-1 orientation engines, but the pressure remaining on the DO-1 has gone down to 180.”

“Komarov: Activated, activated, don’t worry, everything is in order.

Ground: Understood, we’re also not worried. How do you feel, how’s everything? Zarya, over.

Komarov: I feel excellent, everything’s in order.

Ground: Understood, our comrades here recommend that you take a deep breath. We’re waiting for the landing. This is Zarya, over.

Komarov: Thank you for transmitting all of that. [Separation] occurred.

Ground: Rubin, this is Zarya. Understood, separation occurred. Let’s work during the break [pause]. Rubin, this is Zarya, how do you hear me? Over. Rubin, this is Zarya, how do you hear me? Over. This is Zarya, how do you hear me? Over…”

A molten rock sitting on a white table, surrounded by men in uniform
The remains of Vladimir Komarov
A woman in a headscarf kneels in front of a framed photo of Komarov and touches the glass. Two military guards stand next to the photo and flowers are laid out in front. Several friends stand to the side.
Komarov’s wife, Valentina, at his funeral

“For the forerunners it is always more difficult. They tread the unknown paths and these paths are not straight, they have sharp turns, surprises and dangers. But anyone who takes the pathway into orbit never wants to leave it. And no matter what difficulties or obstacles there are, they are never strong enough to deflect such a man from his chosen path. While his heart beats in his chest, a cosmonaut will always continue to challenge the universe. Vladimir Komarov was one of the first on this treacherous path.”

Aftermath

“all the mechanisms of the spaceship, even more attentive to all stages of checking and testing, even more vigilant in our encounter with the unknown.”

“has shown us how dangerous the pathway to space is. His flight and his death will teach us courage.”

Gagarin and Komarov

“He was our friend. Before his death the press and public had paid little attention to the extreme risks we took.”

“I must go to see the main man personally. I’ll get through to him somehow, and if I ever find out he knew about the situation and still let everything happen, then I know exactly what I’m going to do.”

Yuri Gagarin in a spacesuit
Gagarin in a spacesuit

“He is a good test pilot… it would fix nothing.”

A small office with a wooden desk and table, a giant map of Russia behind it. The lamps and phones are old-fashioned and the desk’s papers are covered in glass.
Gagarin’s office

Other Incidents (Soyuz 11)

Three men in flight suits and helmets sit in a cramped space in front of a control panel
The crew of Soyuz 11. Viktor Patsayev in back, spacecraft commander Georgy Dobrovolsky at left and onboard engineer Vladislav Volkov at right in a simulation exercise

“Outwardly, there was no damage whatsoever. They 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. They removed them from the descent module. Dobrovolsky was still warm. The doctors gave artificial respiration. Based on their reports, the cause of death was suffocation.”

A newspaper article with the headline “Conquering heroes who never returned. One step too far into space.”
Daily Mail newspaper reporting on the tragedy

“Now, instead of three heroes, bearing broad smiles and bedecked in medals and garlands of flowers, all the Soviet people had was… three funerals.”

The funeral for the cosmonauts of Soyuz 11

“It is enough for Soviet citizens to know they died gloriously.”

Sergei Vozovikov

The Lost Cosmonauts

Sochi 6/Evidence

A group photo, two versions have one man edited out and replaced with stairs and a bush
Three different versions of the “Sochi 6” photograph

Grigori Nelyubov

A formal portrait of a serious, dark-haired man in military uniform
Grigori Nelybov
Gagarin, Titov, and Nelybov

Theories and Stories

A realistic human dummy in an orange spacesuit and helmet set up in a museum exhibit
Ivan Ivanovich at the Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C.
A man in a military uniform
Vladimir Ilyushin
Two young men, one sitting and one leaning over, both listening to a machine on a table filled with equipment
Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia
A rocket ship launching with the words “The Cape”
The Cape (1996) soundtrack cover art

Truth

“So when they turn the cameras on you/Baby please don’t speak of me/Point up to the dark above you/As they edit me from history/I’m 20 million miles from my comfortable home/And space is very cold.”

The rocky gray surface of the moon, a small silver astronaut sculpture on the ground in front of it, face down, and a plaque with a list of names
“Fallen Astronaut” and the plaque

“Paradoxically the hero-worshiping Soviets denied at least one genuine space age hero — Valentin Bondarenko — his proper tribute and recognition because of their irrational, insistent secrecy. His tragic death in 1961 in the line of duty was not revealed for a quarter of a century. In the meantime, the Apollo 15 astronauts had left a plaque on the moon in 1971 in honor of fallen space heroes, both American and Russian. Bondarenko’s name is not on it, and it should have been. How many other names should also have been there remains to be determined.”

Conclusion

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

Two giant astronauts in red suits with helmets that say “SSSR” in Russian, looking down and saluting at a planet of celebrating people
A Soviet space propaganda poster

Sources

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