The Terrible Fate of Vladimir Komarov and the Lost Cosmonauts

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

Introduction

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.

Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin

Background

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.

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

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.

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

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.

“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,

“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.

Aftermath

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.”

“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,

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

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 and his winning smile

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.

Vladimir “Volodya” Komarov

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.”

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)

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.

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)

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.

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

Soyuz 1 would not be postponed.

“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.

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

Aftermath

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,

Gagarin and Komarov

“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,

Yuri Gagarin in a spacesuit
Gagarin in a spacesuit
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)

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.

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
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.”

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.

The funeral for the cosmonauts of Soyuz 11

“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.

Sergei Vozovikov

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.

Sochi 6/Evidence

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

Conclusion

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.

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spaceflight-related_accidents_and_incidents#Astronaut_fatalities

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Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Gather round, campers, and let me tell you a story! We cover the best true tales of mysteries, histories, true crime, and real heroes from all over the world.