The Terrible Fate of Vladimir Komarov and the Lost Cosmonauts
This article is a transcript of Campfire Stories: Astonishing History podcast Episode 10. You can listen to it on Buzzsprout, or wherever you get your podcasts.
**This article contains graphic descriptions and images of deadly accidents that some readers may find disturbing. View/read at your own discretion.**
Welcome! Come gather around the campfire and let me tell you a story. Today we’re going to be talking about Vladimir Komarov and the lost cosmonauts.
Human beings have always had an unbreakable desire to explore. We’ve traveled to the far corners of the map, dived deep below the waves, and figured out how to fly. None of these adventures have been without danger. In fact, that’s part of the reason they seem to thrill us. And there’s one frontier that has been hanging over us for millennia. Literally. Look up and you’ll see it. Even though the freezing, icy, endless void of outer space is clearly inhospitable to the fragile human body, we just can’t seem to help ourselves from trying to launch ourselves out of Earth’s atmosphere.
There were two major players in the early scramble for the stars: The United States and the Soviet Union. Both of them reached incredible milestones in human history but both of them suffered terrible losses along the way. Next episode, we’ll talk about the early American space program, with some stories you may be more familiar with, but today we’ll discuss the fates of some of the early Soviet space pioneers, including the first death in any space program, Valentin Bondarenko, the failed mission of Soyuz 1, the chilling death of Vladimir Komarov, and the conspiracy theory about the lost cosmonauts.
Let’s start with a little background. In 1926, Robert Goddard, known as the “Father of Modern Rocketry,” launched the first liquid-fueled rocket. In 1942, Germany terrifyingly launched the first successful ballistic missile, called V-2, but luckily only used them during the very end of the war. The Soviet space agency, which didn’t really have a snappy acronym like NASA, was created in the 1950s. Scientists in the Russian Empire had been researching and experimenting with rocketry as early as the 1930s but had been set back a bit because Stalin exiled, murdered, and imprisoned many of the new country’s scientists and intellectuals.
But after World War II, the Soviet Union forcibly moved thousands of German scientists inside the country, put them together with their own engineers, and re-started the space program. The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957, the first man-made satellite in space in human history, was a massive achievement and the United States freaked out about the sudden potential for space warfare, and of course, a brand new kind of competition. This was the start of the space race. Strapping a human being into a metal contraption and launching them into the stars has been dangerous from the start, but the space race added pressure, time constraints, and rapid changes.
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union established Star City near Moscow, a top-secret, military-run, training center where cosmonauts (which is just the term for Russian astronauts) and researchers lived with their families, although the U.S. definitely knew where it was. Well they didn’t call it Star City, they actually called it “closed military townlet №1”, a nice, homey name, but this wasn’t just a military base. It was a fully functional home to thousands of people with schools, a post office, a movie theater, a train station, stores, homes, and a museum. Today it has a population of about 6,300. The Soviet Union actually had about fifty of these so-called “closed cities” that worked on secret research projects on everything from nuclear weapons to submarines, but Star City was for the space race.
Over 3,000 Soviet air force pilots applied for the cosmonaut training program after medical screenings at military bases. 102 made the second round of cuts and went through more physical and mental tests. Twenty made it into Air Force Group One and were brought to the brand new Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City on March 13th, 1960. The men who were chosen were all young, most under 30 years old. This was different from the American program, which chose older, more experienced pilots.
These twenty men were Ivan Anikeyev, Pavel Belyayev, Valery Bykovsky, Valentin Filatyev, Viktor Gorbatko, Anatoli Kartashov, Yevgeni Khrunov, Aleksei Leonov, Grigori Nelyubov, Andriyan Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich, Mars Rafikov, Georgi Shonin, Gherman Titov, Valentin Varlamov, Boris Volynov, Dmitry Zaikin and three that we’ll talk about today: Valentin Bondarenko, Yuri Gagarin, and Vladimir Komarov.
Twelve would actually fly into space. Four were fired after conflicts with the leadership. Three had medical issues. One, we’ll talk about in a sec.
I don’t have time to give you the entire history of the Soviet space program today. We’re going to focus on it’s martyrs. And unfortunately for him, the first of those martyrs was the youngest of the group, Valentin Bondarenko.
Valentin Vasiliyevich Bondarenko was born in Kharkov, modern-day Ukraine. During World War II, Bondarenko’s father went off to fight and Bondarenko and his mother struggled throughout the war.
Bondarenko loved aviation for his entire childhood, growing up in a time where military heroes were idolized. He attended the Kharkov Higher Air Force School and joined the aviation club. In 1954, he graduated and went to an aviation military academy. While in school, he met and married Galina Semenovna Rykova, who worked in the medical field and they had a son named Alexandre that same year. Bondarenko graduated in 1957, the same year the Sputnik 1, was launched into orbit, so it was easy to see how he would be swept up in the national dreams of reaching the stars. After graduation, Bondarenko joined the Soviet Air Force and became a Senior Lieutenant.
In 1960, Bondarenko joined the first group of twenty cosmonauts at Star City. The cosmonauts became close with each other during their off-time. They skied, hunted, played hockey, and helped each other study. Bondarenko was the youngest member at twenty-three, and earned the affectionate nicknames “Valentin Junior” and “Tinkerbell”. He was a well-liked member of the team, a good singer, described as “mild-mannered”, and a good tennis player.
On May 31st of that year, he started training to be part of the Vostok program, which would launch the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, in April of 1961.
The Chamber of Silence
The cosmonauts went through hundreds of tests to see how they would react to what space would be like, although of course, no one had been there yet. On March 13th, 1961, the cosmonauts began an experiment in what the cosmonauts called “The Chamber of Silence” and it was exactly as fun as it sounds.
The Chamber of Silence was a bare room with only a metal bed, a chair, a table, a hot plate and saucepan, a toilet, and sometimes some paper and pens, books, some wood and knives for whittling, or logic puzzles. Sometimes random classical music would play to test brain response. It was soundproof. Scientists would turn on a light to tell the man inside to stick sensors on his body or take them off for four hours of tests a day. The rest of the time was empty. The men didn’t know when they went in how long they would be in there for. They just had to wait and see.
Bondarenko was the 17th out of the twenty men to enter the chamber. A few days before, he took his formal cosmonaut portrait, one of the only surviving pictures of him. Ten days into the 15-day experiment, something went terribly wrong. The air was over 50% oxygen to mimic the conditions inside the spaceship, much higher than average air, which is about 21% oxygen.
Bondarenko was taking off his biosensors with cotton balls covered in rubbing alcohol. He tossed the ball towards the trash without looking, but missed, and the soaked cotton hit a hot plate where he was heating tea. A fire quickly erupted. If you know anything about fire, it loves oxygen. The sealed chamber was its perfect environment and it made everything in the room more flammable. Bondarenko, who had never experienced a high-oxygen fire, tried to put it out with the wool sleeves of his jumpsuit, which also caught fire.
The chamber was pressurized, which meant it took half an hour for the horrified doctor outside and the team that rushed over to open it, by painstakingly releasing air through valves in the door, which was sixteen inches of solid lead. By the time they reached him, he was alive but in rough condition, curled up in a ball on the floor. He had third-degree burns over almost his entire body, his jumpsuit melted, his hair burned, his eyes destroyed. He gathered whatever strength he had left to repeat over and over again,
“It’s my fault… I’m so sorry… no one else is to blame.”
The scientists wrapped him in a blanket and rushed him to Botkin Hospital, under the fake name “Sergeyev Ivanov”. The doctor who treated him eventually spoke about it in a 1984 book. He said that a man described to him as “Sergeyev, a 24-year-old Air Force Lieutenant” was brought into the emergency room. He said,
“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.”
He heard Bondarenko whispering through burned lips,
“Too much pain… do something please… to kill the pain.”
When they tried to give him an IV, the only undamaged skin was on the soles of his feet, where the fire had been blocked by his boots, but they succeeded in giving him pain medication, which was really all they could do.
The doctor described how another young Air Force officer came to the hospital to stay with Bondarenko and report his condition and who told the doctor some basic details about the experiment gone wrong. Later, the doctor saw that man’s face in the paper and realized that it had been Yuri Gagarin who was Bondarnenko’s final companion.
Bondarenko died sixteen hours after the explosion from shock. Nikolai Kamanin, the director of the cosmonaut program and a name you might want to remember for the episode, criticized the experiment, saying it was poorly organized. Bondarenko was buried in Kharkov, where his parents were living. A crater on the moon is named in his honor. Bondarenko was given the heroic award the Order of the Red Star and his family was “given all that is necessary, as befits the family of a cosmonaut.”
His widow continued working in Star City and his son, five at the time of the accident, joined the Air Force like his father.
The Soviet leadership did not want to announce this massive failure, but Bondarenko had already been photographed and filmed as part of the first twenty men chosen for the program. They couldn’t just pretend he didn’t exist, right? Actually, that’s exactly what they did.
The story of his life and death, his very existence at all, was only admitted to the public in the mid-1980s.The Soviet government only came fully clean about the death in 1986, twenty-five years after the tragedy.
When Bondarenko was buried, it was as an air force pilot who died working for the air force, not as a cosmonaut. His grave read:
“With fond memories from your pilot friends.”
There was a debate over the idea that if the Soviets had released details of the accident earlier, it could have prevented the Apollo 1 accident, which also involved a high-oxygen fire. Later on, the Soviet prime minister Nikita Krushev was talking about another accident and said,
“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.”
I guess this idea hit him later, because they didn’t share anything about Bondarenko at the time. But it seems pretty clear that the Americans were well aware of these dangers without the information about Bondarenko, although I’m sure they would have appreciated hearing about it.
But the world finally found out about the youngest cosmonaut and the world’s first space program fatality. His headstone was rightfully changed. The inscription now reads,
“With fond memories from your pilot and cosmonaut friends.”
Valentin Bondarenko was the first known cosmonaut or astronaut to die during the space race, and his death and what followed has fed the “lost cosmonaut” mythos for decades, which we’ll get back to at the end of the episode. But let’s move on for now.
The top six men in the program, known as the Vanguard six, were picked out to be the possible first men in space in 1961. Kamanin put them through extensive training and then they were evaluated by a committee to determine who would be the first man in space. Yuri Gagarin was first, then Titov, Nelyubov, Nikolayev, Bykovsky, and Popovich, in that order.
Yuri Gagarin’s path to space had also been interrupted by World War II. His family had to move out of Moscow. He also worked on a collective farm and had to leave school for a time. But he made his way back to school and joined an aviation club and then went to Air Force school. Gagarin impressed and delighted almost everyone who met him with his honesty, humility, calm, intelligence, and his “open, smiling face.” Korolev, the chief designer, invited the cosmonauts to sit inside a spacecraft when they arrived and Gagrin took off his shoes to be respectful, and from then on, he had endeared himself to the heads of the program.
On April 12th, 1961, three weeks after Bondarenko’s death, the Soviets succeeded in launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth and making him the first man in space. The flight was only one orbit long, 108 minutes from liftoff to landing. Gagarin successfully ejected from the spacecraft 23,000 feet in the air, and parachuted down to the ground and straight into international fame and a world press tour, where he charmed world leaders and cheering crowds alike.
The rest of the cosmonauts at Star City, still grieving the death of the group’s baby, Bondarenko, were likely thrilled by this accomplishment, although probably a little jealous as well. One of them was Yuri Gagarin’s best friend, Vladimir Komarov.
Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov was born on March 16th, 1927 in Moscow. He had one older half-sister, Matilda, and his father was a laborer. Komarov began elementary school in 1935, when he was 8 years old and was noticed almost immediately for his skills in mathematics. His childhood was abruptly shifted in 1941, when he was 14 years old, when World War II arrived. He began working on a collective farm to support the war effort.
But Komarov didn’t let the war stop him from dreaming of the stars. Since he was a child, he had been cutting photos of planes from magazines, putting together model airplanes, and cutting propellers out of tin can lids. He spent hours in his attic, watching the planes over the city from the window, and could even tell them apart just by sound. Komarov was not meant for a life as a farmer or a laborer like his father. Something always kept his eyes looking up instead of down at the plow.
In 1942, at age 15, Komarov enlisted in the 1st Moscow Special Air Force School to start training in aviation, as well as learning other more traditional school subjects. While he was at school, Komarov’s father was killed in the war. No more details were given to his family other than that. Around the same time, the Air School was moved from Komarov’s hometown of Moscow to Tyumen, Siberia in order to be better protected from the war. Komarov graduated in 1945 with honors and by then, the war had ended.
Instead of being shipped off to battle, Komarov began more specialized training at several military aviation schools. Sadly, Komarov’s mother passed away seven months before he graduated in 1949. Komarov began his military career as a lieutenant. He became a fighter pilot and then a senior lieutenant. During this time, he also married a woman named Valentina Yakovlevna Kiselyova in the fall 1950. He served as the chief pilot of a fighter pilot regiment from about 1952–1954, when he began studying engineering at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy. In 1959, he started on a new path. becoming a test pilot at the Central Scientific Research Institute.
Komarov had raced through the skies for a decade. But something kept his eyes looking up even higher. The same year he began as a test pilot, he was promoted to engineer-captain and applied to become a cosmonaut. 3,000 other Soviet pilots were also in the running. But Komarov made the cut to become one of twenty men chosen for Air Force Group One.
Star City Training
Komarov lived in Star City with his wife, their son Yevgeny, and their daughter Irina. The other cosmonauts called Komarov “Volodya”, an affectionate nickname of his first name, and he was loved by pretty much everyone. During the training, Komarov was known for helping out the younger cosmonaut trainees with their academic work, and he and the 34-year-old trainee Belyayev were both affectionately called “The Professors.” His friend and fellow trainee Pavel Popovich said of Komarov,
“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.”
Alexei Leonov, who was in his training group and also apparently did a lot of talking because like 80% of the sources from this episode mention him, said that Komarov was “very serious. He was a first-class test pilot.”
Komarov was one of the most qualified candidates. He was also the third highest paid of all the trainees because of his high rank. He helped design aircraft. He was one of the two men in the group who had trained at the Air Force Academy. And he was the only one with experience as a flight test engineer. However, at 32, Komarov was the second oldest trainee. The Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, had decided 27 was the maximum age for an ideal candidate. Komarov remained at the training center, but wasn’t chosen as one of the top six pilots.
Two months after Komarov arrived, he needed an operation which prevented him from training for six months. The program considered cutting him, but because of his extensive qualifications and bright mind, he was allowed to stay after promising he could catch up while recovering. He started back a month earlier than expected.
In 1961, the cosmonauts began participating in space flights. In May 1962, Komarov was able to replace Georgi Shonin for the Vostok missions when Shonin showed too much negative reaction to g-forces in training. He was supposed to be a back up for Pavel Popovich on the Vostok 4 mission. However, a medical test showed that Komarov had a heart irregularity, atrial fibrillation. He was pulled out of the Vostok mission. But Komarov wasn’t going to give up easily. He argued with the program staff for months until he was allowed back in.
In 1963, the cosmonauts were broken up into six training groups. Komarov was placed in group 2, along with Valery Bykovsky and Boris Volynov, who had actually replaced him as the backup for Vostok 4. Group 2 started to train for missions planned for later that year. Komarov was pushed forward as the backup for Vostok 5 because his spacesuit was ready.
In April of 1964, having completed over two years of training at Star City, Komarov was officially declared ready for spaceflight, along with eight other trainees. By May, there were only four men who made the next round of cuts: Boris Volynov, Aleksei Leonov, Yevgeni Khrunov, and Komarov.
Voskhod 1 (1964)
By July, there were seven men eligible to be part of the crew of Voskhod 1. That month, Komarov was originally named as the commander of the back-up crew for the mission. The ship was intended to carry one crew member, but was modified to carry three so that it would outdo the American Gemini ships. The final crew was argued about for months. But on October 4th, 1964, Komarov was officially chosen as the commander for the primary crew, eight days before launch. Boris Yegorov and Konstantin Feoktistov were chosen as the other two crew members. Komarov was the only one with flight experience at all and he was given the call sign Рубин (Roo-been), Ruby in English.
The head of cosmonaut training, Nikolai Kamanin played tennis with the crew that night and Kaminin reported that Komarov played worse than usual. Whether it was nerves, or just an off day, or the general stress of having your boss examine your every move even when you were supposed to be relaxing, is unclear. The Soviet state press took photos of the crew several days later playing tennis again, and inspecting the spacecraft.
On October 11th, it was launch day. The crew did a final inspection. Komarov was given several communist objects to take with them into space. The launch went well.
Komarov sent a message from space to the Tokyo Olympics, which had started the day before. He and the other two crew members did several tests for twenty-four hours and observed the Aurora Borealis. They landed safely and were taken back to the launch sight.
Kaminin, the program director, noted that the two other crew members seemed to be in a good mood, but Komarov seemed tired. Which seems fair after spending a full day in outer space (leave him alone, Kaminin!). After they landed, chief designer Korolev said that he was actually shocked the crew arrived back alive after they squeezed three people in.
The team visited the Kremlin and the Red Square to celebrate their mission success, although they didn’t make as much news as expected because of major political changes. Nikita Krushev, the former head of the country, was replaced by Leonid Breznev. Komarov was promoted to colonel and awarded the Order of Lenin and the official status of Hero of the Soviet Union. Komarov and several other cosmonauts toured the Soviet Union and West Germany. He and Yuri Gagarin helped prepare the crew of Voskhod 2, who would be the first attempt of any human to try and leave a spacecraft in outer space, which was successful.
Soyuz 1 (1967)
Next, three cosmonauts were chosen for the Soyuz program. Komarov, Alexei Leonov, and Yuri Gagarin. In 1967, Brezhnev, the new head of the Soviet Union at the time wanted to do a magnificent display of space technology to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the communist revolution. The idea was that one spaceship would be launched into orbit, Soyuz 1. Soyuz translates to “union” or “alliance” in English, which many people take to be a reference to the Soviet Union, but could have also been a reference to the planned display.
The day after Soyuz 1 was launched with Komarov, a second ship, Soyuz 2, would be launched and the two ships would meet up (forming a “union”, so to speak). Komarov would climb into the second ship, trading places with one of the three cosmonauts in the other ship. Komarov and the other cosmonauts would come home in Soyuz 2 and the third cosmonaut would pilot Soyuz 1 back to Earth. Which was… quite a plan. On a tight timeline. A recipe for success, right?
During the development of the Soyuz spacecraft, Komarov and the other cosmonauts fought repeatedly with the administrators and other engineering staff over the design of the ship. Komarov believed the exit hatch was too small to fit a cosmonaut in a full suit. The team kept being reassigned to different projects within the Soyuz program, confusing them either more. Komarov, who had always been strong-willed, started to clash openly with the program administrators.
On a tour of Japan in 1966, he revealed the Soviet plan to fly an automated spacecraft around the moon and then return to Earth, which wasn’t supposed to be public knowledge yet. Whether this was intentional or an accident, I don’t know. Gagarin and Komarov and other senior engineers found hundreds of problems with Soyuz 1. They knew that the only safe option would be to postpone the launch.
According to the book Starman, the engineers put together a letter to the higher ups with their concerns. It was officially from Gagarin, as he was the most respected and the least likely to incur the wrath of the communist party leaders. He gave it to a KGB agent, Venyamin Russayev. But no one would send it to the people in charge. Anyone who tried could be fired. They were fighting for anybody to listen to their concerns about the safety of the Soyuz 1. But no one seemed to hear them. At one point, Komarov reportedly said of the capsule,
“Devil machine! Nothing I lay my hands on works!”
Soyuz 1 would not be postponed.
Later on, one of the project engineers wrote a memoir after coming to America and said,
“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…”
He also said that the deputy chief designer Vasily Mishin had objected to the launch, but the launch went forward.
Then came the decision for who was going to pilot this piece of junk. They knew that whoever was chosen would likely never return. Komarov was picked. Komarov said to Russayev a month before the mission
“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.”
So he agreed to go.
Before he left, Komarov stated that his funeral needed to be open-casket. Then the Soviet leaders would have to look at what they had done to him. Gagarin and Komarov worked for twelve to fourteen hours a day while training for the spaceflight.
According to one journalist, Yuri Gagarin showed up the day of the launch and demanded that he take his friend’s place. It didn’t work. They were never going to let the national hero fly, even if he wanted to. Whatever really did happen before the launch, it’s a fact that when Soyuz 1 was launched on April 23, 1967, Komarov was inside
Things went wrong immediately. Komarov said to ground control,
“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.”
He lost contact with the ground during some time during his orbits. He struggles to fix the spacecraft’s orientation to the sun for five hours.
The team on the ground cancelled the launch of the second Soyuz module. They told Komarov to use the ion sensors on the ship to re-orient it, but those sensors also failed. After nineteen orbits around the Earth, he finally fixed it and re-entered the atmosphere. The main parachute failed to deploy. A secondary chute was opened but tangled up with the failed main chute. Soyuz 1 crashed into Earth’s surface at about 80mph and immediately exploded into flames.
The official Soviet transcript of Komarov’s last moments read as follows (translated, of course):
“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…”
Now, that is the official Soviet transcript. The Starman book claims that a U.S. intelligence listening post outside of Istanbul intercepted some very different communications, where Komarov was enraged, cursing the space program and Breznev who forced him to his death. It also claims that there was a call with his wife and the Soviet leaders, who cried and apologized for sending him there.
There is also an audio clip floating around on the internet which is possibly from the communication recording of Komarov and the ground control. According to some translations, he says “Heat is rising in the capsule” and something about being “killed”. The truth is unclear. It’s possible that it was somewhere between the two.
However, the most likely situation is that although Komarov knew that he was in serious danger during the botched mission, he wouldn’t have been able to tell that the parachutes didn’t deploy until his final moments, when communication with mission control would have been completely blocked. It would have seemed that he had made it through the troubles with the ship once he was able to return to Earth until the descent was almost over. Whatever he said during that time when no one could hear is a mystery, although I certainly wouldn’t have blamed him if that involved cussing out the space program once he realized that the horrible trap that was Soyuz 1 really did fail him after all.
When the capsule arrived back on Earth, the Soviet space program quickly figured out what they had done to one of their best and most well-loved cosmonauts. Komarov’s body had been completely melted. All that was left of hin was a hardened rock, with only his heel identifiable.
A group of Soviet leaders came to the site of the crash and brought Komarov’s remains to the Orsk airport. They covered the remains of the ship itself with an officer’s hat. A group of cosmonauts and the head of the aircraft design bureau flew in early in the morning the next day to an airport twenty miles outside the city in miserable weather. The team was instructed to photograph Komarov’s body- if it could still be called that- conduct an autopsy, and then cremate him.
Komarov was given an official state funeral in Moscow. The American astronauts asked to send a representative to pay their respects, but their request was denied. His ashes were placed inside the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in the Red Square and he was posthumously made the Hero of the Soviet Union.
On April 25th, 1968, 10,000 people attended a memorial service for Komarov at the site of the crash. There is also a monument on the site today. There is a crater and an asteroid named for him, the 1836 Komarov. Composer Brett Dean wrote a piece for him called Komarov’s fall, which I did listen to, and does sound like the score of a terrifying sci-fi horror film, but is a nice tribute.
On April 25th, the other cosmonauts published an official response to Komarov’s death. It read,
“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.”
The cosmonauts were surely shaken up by this, particularly the cosmonauts who were supposed to have participated in the same mission. In the aftermath of the crash, Soyuz 2, the ship that was supposed to meet up with Komarov was checked over again. It had the exact same parachute issue. If the union hadn’t been called off at the last moment, Khrunov, Yeliseyev, and Bykovsky all would have died too.
Yuri Gagarin was furious. And deeply guilty. He gave a newspaper interview on May 17th where he said that the space program needed to be more thorough in testing,
“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.”
He also said that Komarov,
“has shown us how dangerous the pathway to space is. His flight and his death will teach us courage.”
The next year, Gagarin and Leonv said that the head of the program, Vasily Mishin had a “poor knowledge of the Soyuz spacecraft and the details of its operation, his lack of cooperation in working with the cosmonauts in flight and training activities.”
Leonov also spoke about Komarov’s death many decades later in a 2000 documentary. Leonov said,
“He was our friend. Before his death the press and public had paid little attention to the extreme risks we took.”
According to an account by the KGB agent Russayev, Yuri Gagarin came to visit him three weeks after the crash. He asked to speak in the stairwell of the apartment building to avoid bugs. Gagarin said about Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet Union,
“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.”
Russayev said that he warned Gagarin to be careful. There is a rumor that Gagrin threw a drink in Brezhnev’s face at a party, which probably didn’t happen, but God I hope did.
Tragically, despite Komarov’s sacrifice to protect his friend, Yuri Gagarin was killed in a plane crash in 1968, at age 34. Gagarin had wanted to continue flying, but he was literally grounded. He watched his friends and even new cosmonauts fly multiple missions, but he was a national hero now, and continuously put on back-up crews to protect him. After Komarov’s death, they were really not going to let Gagrin go back into space just for his own thrill. In 1968, the Soviet leadership allowed him to at least fly jets again, but this was a fatal mistake. His fifth flight after the permission was granted was his last.
Gagarin’s death was the subject of international speculation and theorizing for decades. The initial story was that Gagarin and the instructor, Vladimir Seryogin, moved quickly to avoid a bird and crashed. Rumors popped up that they had been drunk, or possibly shooting at deer from the jet, which have to be some of the most Russian rumors I’ve ever heard, or even that the plane could have been sabotaged when the Soviet leadership had a conflict with Gagarin.
But in 2013, former cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (I told you this guy kept popping up) gave an interview where he revealed what is likely the truth. Another jet flew much lower than it was authorized to and passed right next to Gagarin’s plane, forcing it into a tailspin and causing the crash. Declassified reports from the time seem to back this up. Leonov, who was then 79-years-old, said he was allowed to tell the story as long as he didn’t reveal the name of the pilot responsible for the death, who was eighty-years-old and ill at the time the story broke. Leonov said,
“He is a good test pilot… it would fix nothing.”
Although I have to imagine he’s no longer a top test pilot at eighty.
The space program and the cosmonauts were devastated by the loss of two of their most beloved friends and mentors back to back. But his legacy is still felt in Star City today. Before flying to space, every cosmonaut visits Gagrin’s old office, which has been preserved exactly as he left it.
After each flight, they leave flowers by the statue of him nearby. On his desk, the calendar is left at March 27th, 1968. His uniform is still on the coat rack. And the clock is stopped at the time the world lost the first man in space.
Other Incidents (Soyuz 11)
Since Komarov’s death, there have been twenty-two deaths of astronauts and cosmonauts, some of which I’ll cover in the next episode, but a one more major one on the Soviet side I’ll mention briefly.
In 1971, the Soviets suffered the only casualty of human beings that actually occurred in space. The crew that actually flew Soyuz 11, Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, had been meant to be the backups, but one man on the primary team had a medical issue (later revealed to be an allergic reaction to pesticide) and the swap was made two days before the launch in a major stroke of good luck for the primary and not-so good luck for the second.
Dobrovolsky was a former Nazi-fighting partisan who applied for the Air Force after his Navy application went in too late. Patsayev was a childhood sci-fi fan turned actual scientist who joined the cosmonaut corps under encouragement from Volkov. Volkov was a handsome and artistic son of an aircraft engineer and an aircraft factory worker.
All three of them were launched into national stardom when their ship was launched and the public eagerly followed their three weeks in space. Patsayev was even the first person to celebrate a birthday in space, turning thirty-eight.
The whole trip went well until the return to Earth, when a vent in the ship blew out and depressurized the capsule. The spaceship returned to Earth seemingly normally, as the landing was fully automatic, but there was silence in the capsule when communications came back online at touchdown.
The ground crew opened the ship and were shocked to find the crew dead. The incident was later described by a higher up in the Soviet space program,
“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 more detailed autopsy would show that they had actually died of brain hemorrhaging. Two of them had unstrapped to try and close the vent, but it was too fast for them to tell what vent had opened. They all died within 110 seconds of the accident. There had been no chance of saving them when the ship landed. They remain the only humans ever exposed to the vacuum of outer space, and I hope we can let them keep that record for a while longer.
The Soviet public had been excitedly following the men’s journey in space for weeks. The head of the space program, Kamanin, was waiting patiently for the news of the successful touchdown, only to be told the tragic news instead. It came in the form of three numbers. Each number described a cosmonaut’s health on a scale of 1–5 with five being excellent and 1 being dead. Someone entered the room where Kamanin and veteran cosmonaut Alexei Yeliseyev were waiting and told them: 1–1–1.
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov had advised the crew to close and open the air vents manually to avoid any possibility of this problem. But his friends had decided to follow their regular training procedure instead. The other major thing that could have saved him seems obvious in hindsight: they could have simply been wearing spacesuits. In response, both NASA and the Soviets changed their procedures to include spacesuits being worn the entirety of most space flights.
This accident was announced to the public and nationally mourned. As one magazine explained,
“Now, instead of three heroes, bearing broad smiles and bedecked in medals and garlands of flowers, all the Soviet people had was… three funerals.”
All three were made Heroes of the Soviet Union and given enormous state funerals with tens of thousands of mourners, including Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet Union at that point, and who had to cover his face with his hands to hide his emotion at the ceremony.
In a significant shift of policy, the details of the ship failure was shared with the American space program to prevent any similar tragedy, although these details were not shared with the Soviet public. As journalist James Oberg wrote,
“It is enough for Soviet citizens to know they died gloriously.”
The U.S. ambassador was allowed to attend the service and even be a pallbearer, a major change from the chilly rejection that came when the U.S. offered to send an astronaut to Komarov’s funeral. The three men were buried near Gagarin and Komarov in the Red Square.
The next space-related casualty was in 1993 when Soviet cosmonaut-in-training Sergei Vozovikov drowned after becoming tangled in a fishing during a survival training on the Black Sea.
Those are all the Soviet space program deaths… That we know of.
The Lost Cosmonauts
The fact that the Soviets definitely hid information about their space program have led to quite a bit of speculation that they hid other deaths, that we still don’t know about. The idea of the Lost Cosmonauts, also known as the Phantom Cosmonauts, is regarded as a conspiracy theory but let me put on my tin foil hat for a second and discuss it. The basic idea is that the Soviet space program sent some cosmonauts into space that we as the general public never heard about, likely before Yuri Gagarin’s successful mission in 1967.
Well before Yuri Gagarin’s successful launch was announced, rumors circulated in the West about lost cosmonauts, entire lists of these supposed missing men were printed in newspapers. Most of these were lies. At least one was not.
There is a famous photograph of the men called the “Sochi 6”, the top six men chosen out of the original twenty cosmonauts. The photo was taken a few weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s first flight. But there’s two versions of the picture: the official version and one that was later discovered to be the unedited original by American space engineer and journalist James Oberg, with one more man in the image. One version of the forgery had just a missing gap, another a rosebush, another the actual stairs that were behind the men drawn back in.
British researcher Rex Hall also discovered that five cosmonauts had been airbrushed out of a photo of sixteen and replaced with bushes and other random scenery. This wasn’t a huge surprise, considering the fact that the Soviets were known to alter historical photos and plenty of records throughout their rule, but this incident has led to quite a bit of discussion within the lost cosmonauts theory.
What happened to those men? One of the remaining cosmonauts published a book in 1977 where he shared their first names and the reasons they left the program, although several of these reasons were false. Mars Rafikov left for “personal reasons”. Three were injured. Anatoliy Kartashov had a “skin-bleeding” problem after going through centrifuge tests, which I have no more details on but sounds… rough. Valentin Varlamov injured his neck while diving. Dmitriy Zaikin developed ulcers. Details about all these people were hidden. One man erased was of course Valentin Bondarenko. Another was a parachute instructor, named Nikitin, who was killed in an accident.
Three other men who were hidden did not leave by choice. Grigoriy Nelyubov was one of the top candidates of the twenty, destined to be one of the first men in space, the third in that ranking of the final six if you remember. He was competitive, hot-headed, confident, and he did earn some of that confidence by being an exceptional trainee. The head of the space program, Kaminin, didn’t like him very much at all. He was disappointed several times when he was passed over for mission assignments, but he continued to train with the top six.
But one incident in 1963 would change that. Nelyubov and two other cosmonauts, Ivan Anikeyev and Valentin Filatyev, were drunk and traveling back to Star City after a weekend trip when they got in an argument with some security officers because they didn’t have their identification papers. They were arrested, but then the security guards realized they really were cosmonauts as they had claimed.
The security team told them they would forgive the incident and let them go scott-free if they just apologized. The other two did immediately. Nelyubov, reportedly egotistical about his high position in the cosmonaut corps, refused. The security officers filed their report. Kaminin was furious that they had embarrassed the program publicly. All three, Nelyubov, Ivan Anikeyev, and Valentin Filatyex, were kicked out of the program. Nelyubov had not been well liked, but the others had, and they were furious that Nelyubov had cost them all their dreams.
Nelybuv was transferred back to the air force. The three remaining men from the original six got to fly, as well as Komarov and Leonov from the back up team. As Nelybuv watched from Siberia, he went into a deep, alcohol-fueled depression. He told his friends and colleagues about his previous life as a secret cosmonaut and a backup to the first man in space, but no one believed him. Five years later, he wrote a note to his wife, locked the doors of his apartment, climbed out the window into a snow storm and stepped in front of a train near his air force base, in what was officially recorded as an accident, but was likely a suicide. His involvement in the cosmonaut corps wouldn’t be revealed until 1986.
The program leaders erased all these men from photographs and they disappeared from history for several decades. This story was compiled by Russian journalist Yaroslav Golovanov, the same man who broke the news of Bondarenko’s death, and the details weren’t revealed until the mid-eighties.
However, rumors about lost cosmonauts went far beyond the Soviets fudging some details and wiping some photographs.
Theories and Stories
Rumors popped up in the early 60s that a man had been sent to space and killed in an accident by the Soviets. However, this was likely a case of mistaken identity. The Soviets did launch a man into space in 1961- but he wasn’t alive.
It was a dummy called Ivan Ivanovich, the Russian equivalent of the name John Doe, who actually looked so similar to an actual human being that the word “dummy” had to be written on his forehead. He was sent into space twice, along with dogs, mice, guinea pigs, reptiles, and an audio recording of a choir to test the audio system.
The Soviet’s purposefully chose a choir as the audio instead of a more realistic man’s voice so that radio stations that picked up the noise wouldn’t think they had sent a real human… good try, guys, that still happened.
Vladimir Ilyushin might be the most well-known lost cosmonaut theory. The story generally goes that Ilyushin was the true first man in space and the mission had gone horribly wrong. A British communist newspaper reported that Ilyushin had launched in a spaceship creatively named “Russia”, and that he had gone crazy from the launch-gone-wrong and the Soviets had covered it up with Gagarin’s mission soon after.
Other reports said he had crashed in China and been captured by the Chinese government or that he had ended up in a coma. Some reports even went so far as to claim that Gagarin never actually went to space at all, and had just replaced Ilyushin for the announcement. There were entire movies made about this theory including the 1999 film called The Cosmonaut Cover-Up and the 2009 film Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy, which alleged the U.S. hid records they had of the mission. However, no record of a launch fitting this description was discovered in declassified Soviet papers or North American monitoring agencies. Ilyushin was actually a Soviet test pilot, and it was announced that he had been seriously injured in a car crash a few days before Gagarin’s official launch.
Two brothers from Italy, Mario and Luigi… nope sorry, wrong notes, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia claimed that they picked up audio recordings of lost cosmonauts in the early 1960s. They released nine recordings which included an SOS message in Morse code, the sounds of several cosmonauts leaving orbit and flying out into deep space, a woman screaming that she was burning, and several cosmonauts crying out as they were killed.
Luckily, all these recordings appear to be fake. The Russian heard in the recordings has grammatical errors and does not use any kind of standardized language like a trained cosmonaut and Russian native speaker would sound like. Also, the rockets used in the early Soviet space program didn’t have the power to leave’s Earth’s orbit even if they wanted to, which would have made the calls about veering off into deep space impossible.
There was another theory that the Soviets had rushed a moon launch attempt where the rocket exploded and killed everyone on board. A story went around of a man named Andrei Mikoyan, who was alleged to be killed in this rushed moon-shot. However, this was almost definitely based on an episode of the 1996 T.V show The Cape which involves American astronauts finding a Soviet spaceship drifting in space with a dead cosmonaut named… Andrei Mikoyan who had been killed in a failed moon-shot to beat NASA.
In 1959, a Czech communist leader supposedly leaked information about cosmonauts named Ledovsky, Mitkov, Shiborin, and Gromova that he claimed died inside R-5 missiles. The same year, an Italian news source spread this information with the same names, but there was no evidence found to support these claims.
Aso in 1959, the Russian magazine Ogoniok brought up the idea of several cosmonauts dying in high-altitude parachute tests. They published photos of four men: Pyotr Dolgov, Ivan Kachur, Alexey Grachov, and Gennady Zavadovsky. Now, these men did actually die, but they weren’t cosmonauts. Soviet records indicated that Dolgov died in 1962 while jumping from a balloon at 93,960ft (28,640 meters) when his head hit the gondola and depressurized his suit. Kachur was likely involved in these tests and disappeared around the same time as Dolgov died. Later, Zavadovsky was added to the official list of cosmonauts who had been killed, but there were no details released. A journalist ended up tracking down a retired Soviet parachutist named Alexey Belokonov who confirmed that none of those men, nor Ilyushin, nor himself ever went to space.
The revelation that the Soviets covered up the death of Valentin Bondarenko and the fact that he definitely existed has added quite a bit of energy to this discussion, but there is no concrete evidence that any other cosmonaut existed that we don’t know about now. Several journalists and researchers have looked into this theory, including American NASA engineer and space journalist James Oberg, and have found no evidence of any lost cosmonauts. The Soviet Union fell thirty years ago, so we probably would have found out by now if there were any more, but you never know. Modern-day Russia isn’t known for being particularly loose with information.
Of course, the lost cosmonauts have inspired quite a few pop culture references, including the villain of the video game Metal Gear Solid 3, the movie Apollo 18, several novels, and a song by the band Wolf Parade which features lyrics like:
“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.”
When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong placed a memorial on the lunar surface to Komarov, Gagarin, and the three American astronauts from Apollo 1, Gus Grisom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Later a plaque was left by David Scott on the Apollo 15 mission honoring the fourteen astronauts who had died by 1971. The known astronauts, at least. A tiny metal astronaut sculpture lies there to this day called “Fallen Astronaut.”
“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.”
Space travel has always been dangerous. The rise of private companies dipping their toes into spaceflight and national space agencies considering unprecedented human missions like a trip to Mars will continue to be dangerous. But mankind has been looking up at the stars and dreaming and hoping and planning and thinking of ways to get there. And that’s not stopping anytime soon.
I’m going to end with a poem that was quoted in Reagan’s Challenger speech called High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, a British-American World War II pilot who wrote it before he was killed in a mid-air collision.
“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.”