There is a new book coming out next month detailing the life and times of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. He was aboard Vostok 1 when it made its historic spaceflight on April 12, 1961. The book is entitled Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, and it’s generating a bit of buzz not for its purported subject — Gagarin himself — but for the account of another doomed spaceflight in 1967 that claimed the life of Gagarin’s good friend and fellow cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov. It’s a truly heartbreaking tale.
Robert Krulwich helpfully provides the highlights of the account given by authors Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, who claim to have based their version of events on details provided by a former KGB officer named Venymin Ivanovich Russayev, and the investigation of a reporter for Pravda named Yaroslav Golovanov. [UPDATE: Krulwich wrote a second post highlighting several questions raised by space historians about the accuracy of Starman and the sources the authors relied upon for their book. He is investigating further. Follow Krulwich Wonders for further updates.] If those sources are to be believed, here’s what happened:
Once upon a time, there were two Russian cosmonauts, Yuri and Vladimir, who happened to be good friends. One day, USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev decided it would be a nifty idea to show those Americans how space flight is done by staging a mid-space rendezvous between two Soviet spaceships.
Soyuz I would carry one cosmonaut into near-Earth orbit, and then a second spacecraft would be launched with another cosmonaut aboard. Those two men would then switch places and the first cosmonaut would return to Earth in the second spaceship. What could possibly go wrong?
In a word, everything.
Various technicians inspected Soyuz I prior to launch and found a whopping 203 structural problems; clearly, the mission should be postponed, since any cosmonaut who launched aboard the spacecraft would be unlikely to return alive. And who should be chosen to be that ill-fated cosmonaut, but Vladimir. His friend Yuri would be his alternate.
Not wanting to see his good friend die, Yuri penned a 10-page memo for Brezhnev and gave it to a pal in the KGB to forward. Yuri was a national treasure, a bona fide celebrity by then; surely those in power would listen to his concerns.
But the memo never got to Brezhnev. Nobody wanted to be the messenger of bad news, you see. As Krulwich notes, “Everyone who saw that memo… was demoted, fired, or sent to diplomatic Siberia.” That included the KGB agent (Russayev) who tried to forward Yuri’s memo.
According to Russayev, he asked Vladimir why he simply didn’t refuse to fly the mission, and Vladimir answered truthfully: because if he backed out, his alternate would be the one to launch into near-certain death, and that alternate was his good friend Yuri. “He’ll die instead of me,” he said. “We’ve got to take care of him.” And knowing he was sealing his own fate, Vladimir burst into tears.
Pause a moment and ask yourself: what would you have done? Would you save your own skin and back out of the mission, even though it meant your good friend would likely die in your stead? Could you live with the guilt if you did so? Or would you do what Vladimir did, and sacrifice yourself for your friend?
Apparently Yuri showed up on that fateful day, April 23, 1967, and demanded to be suited up for the flight instead of his friend, but he was refused. The launch proceeded as planned, with Vladimir on board. And the multiple malfunctions, indeed, proved fatal. As Krulwich writes:
All that was left of Vladimir Komarov was a chipped heel bone and a misshapen molten lump of remains; nonetheless, the state funeral featured an open casket (see photo).
Purportedly, Yuri Gagarin was consumed with guilt over what had happened to his friend, since he hadn’t been able to persuade Brezhnev to postpone the mission. There is a rumor that when Yuri finally did come face to face with Brezhnev, he threw a drink in his face. One can only hope this is true.
The worst part of the story is that Vladimir’s sacrifice was in vain. One year later, Yuri was on a routine training flight with another flight instructor when their MIG crashed near the town of Kirzhach. Both men died.
There are any number of theories about what went wrong, but conspiracy theorists have bandied about the possibility that the crash wasn’t exactly an accident. Perhaps Yuri Gagarin, despite his national hero status, had started to make a few too many waves. We’ll probably never know the truth; the Kremlin refused to open a new investigation in April 2007.
Look, space flight is dangerous even today; the various space shuttle tragedies attest to that. It was even more dangerous during the 1960s. The same year Vladimir plummeted to his death, three American astronauts perished when an Apollo capsule caught fire (Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee). Krulwich rightly points out that in 1969, then-President Nixon had a speech all prepared in the event that the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the moon, slowly suffocating to death as their life support systems failed.
But ask any astronaut why they do it, and they’ll likely tell you it’s worth the risk — because there’s nothing more amazing than being in space, looking back at the home planet, and marveling, as Yuri Gagarin did on his historic flight, “The Earth is blue… How wonderful. It is amazing.”