The Man Who Fell From Space – OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because space exploration is a risky venture with some devastating consequences.

  • Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when his Soyuz 1 descent module crashed on April 24, 1967.
  • The tragedy contributed to setbacks in the Soviet space program that allowed the United States to vault ahead in the race to the moon.

It was like a scene lifted straight from Brueghel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. As farm workers in Karabutak, a small village in the foothills of the southern Ural Mountains in Russia, took to their fields around sunrise on the morning of April 24, 1967, they witnessed a remarkable celestial sight in the clear spring skies. A large blackened object traveling at high speed smashed into the ground near the horizon with a loud explosion heard for miles. 

The crash site of Soyuz 1

This particular Icarus, 40-year-old cosmonaut and national hero Vladimir Komarov, was killed the moment his Soyuz 1 descent module slammed into the ground. The circumstances behind the crash remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, but the disaster’s significance was clear: The small crater left by the module in the Russian countryside paled in comparison to the impact that Komorav’s death — the first in-flight fatality in the history of human spaceflight — made in the Soviet Union’s progress and ambitions at a critical time in the nation’s space race with the United States.

The Soyuz 1 tragedy came just three months after the Apollo 1 incident that killed three American astronauts during a launch rehearsal. The Soviets were pursuing an ambitious flight schedule in an attempt to keep up with their American counterparts, designing spacecraft and rocketry for lunar landings, lunar flybys and earth orbiting. They hoped that 1967 — the 10th anniversary of the Sputnik triumph and the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution — would be a banner year for Soviet space travel. Increasingly anxious about losing the race to the moon to NASA, and hoping to capitalize on the Apollo 1 setback, top party brass, including leader Leonid Brezhnev, pressed hard for progress. “The [Soviet] designers faced immense political pressure for a new space spectacular,” says Francis French, author of In the Shadow of the Moon. “Soyuz was being rushed into service before all the problems had been ironed out.”

Soyuz was being rushed into service before all the problems had been ironed out.

Historian Francis French

The first manned Soyuz mission was planned for April 1967, when Soyuz 1 would rendezvous with Soyuz 2 in orbit before returning to Earth. Piloting Soyuz 1, the first into orbit, would be Vladimir Komarov, awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union after his first spaceflight in October 1964, and perhaps the most respected cosmonaut after Yuri Gagarin. But technical problems plagued the pre-launch period. Nine days before launch, more than 200 anomalies in various technical components, including attitude control and communications systems were identified. Top Soviet engineers expressed their concerns but nobody asked the Kremlin to

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