Thursday, April 24, 2008

April 24

The Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union claimed another victim 41 years ago today, when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov plummeted 150 miles to Earth aboard the Soyuz I spacecraft. The accident took place three months after the United States lost three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire; it set the Soviet space program back by nearly two years, helping to assure that the United States would be the first superpower to reach the Moon.

Described posthumously by the Communist Party as “a loyal son of our motherland and a courageous explorer of space,” Komarov was incinerated when the ship struck the ground near Orenburg, Siberia after both its main and reserve parachutes failed, with the latter becoming hopelessly tangled in the drag chute. The tangled chute was the last of a seemingly endless sequence of failures after the previous day’s launch. Upon arrival into orbit, one of the craft’s solar panels failed to deploy, leaving the orbiter without sufficient power to maneuver. After a fate-tempting thirteen cycles around the planet, and with Komarov quickly losing his ability to stabilize the Soyuz, the decision was made to attempt re-entry, with results that were -- to understate the matter -- less than optimal.

The entire Soyuz project had been a chaotic mess to this point -- a situation that Komarov’s death only underscored. Previous unmanned Soyuz test flights had all ended badly, and it was widely known among the Soviet engineers and cosmonauts that the program was riddled with flaws. Despite the knowledge that literally hundreds of design problems jeopardized the launch, Party officials were determined to move ahead so that the first Soyuz missions would coincide with state celebrations of Lenin’s birthday. Before the launch, Komarov himself joked that if he were bumped from the mission, Yuri Gagarin -- a national hero -- would die instead.

Americans listening to Soviet radio transmissions claimed later that they could hear Komarov -- who had been able to say goodbye to his wife and children before re-entry -- cursing and berating the engineers and flight planners as his ship scorched the atmosphere at 400 miles an hour.

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