Facts About People Who Have Died In Space That The Government Never Told Us
Space is fascinating, isn’t it? It comprises the overwhelming majority of all existence, yet 99.9999999% percent of it is absolutely unknown to all of us. That’s why space exploration is so exciting, but also so terrifying. With so much that we don’t understand, that’s a lot to be afraid of. There’s a lot that can go wrong. And what’s scarier than dying while in the vacuum of space, a place where movies are quick to point out that no one can hear you scream.
But while we’ve seen countless fictional characters die in countless sci-fi movies set in space, very few people have in real life. But it has happened, and it’s scarier than anything you will ever see on the big screen. A big reason why it’s so scary is the same as why space is scary: because there’s so much we didn’t know about it… until now. In the early ’70s, three Russian cosmonauts died in space. This is their story, full of information the Russian government didn’t want to get out.
The Soviets' Goal
During the space race of the 1960s and ’70s, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were desperate to one-up each other and prove they were the dominant super power.
Sadly, this desperation lead to some terrible decisions and the loss of life.
Still, the Soviet Union badly wanted their Soyuz 11 mission to be successful. They’d beaten America in 1971 by launching a space station, Salyut 1 into orbit, but were heavily embarrassed after failing to dock it with the Soyuz 10.
Why was Russia so desperate to get a big win in the space race in 1971? It’s because of what happened in 1969.
After America landed men on the moon, the Soviet’s previous achievements, like the launch of satellites Sputnik and Sputnik 2 didn’t seem to compare.
Even putting the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, didn’t really seem as impressive next to America’s moon-walking accomplishment. The Soviet Union felt that if they were to remain in the space race, they had to catch up, and fast.
The Russians beat the Americans putting satellites and even a person in space. But the U.S. put a man on the moon first.
The U.S.S.R. felt like having a fully opera fully-operational space station would be exactly what they needed, but as stated, their previous attempts at docking had been unsuccessful with Soyuz 10.
So the Soyuz 11 mission, which hoped to successfully dock the spaceship with the station this time was, critical. However, it was a disaster from the start.
The issues didn’t even begin with the spacecraft itself, but with the crew that was intended to operate it.
Four days before the Soyuz 11’s scheduled launch, medics discovered early signs of tuberculosis in one crewman, Valeri Kubasov.
But instead of cancelling or delaying the mission, the Soviets scrapped the entire crew and went with a new one, consisting of three men. They should have turned this down, but being patriots, they went along with the rushed mission anyway.
The New Crew
The commander, 43-year-old Georgi Dobrovolsky, would oversee Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev in the Soviet’s attempt to regain space dominance.
Though they were a back-up crew, each was an experienced cosmonaut in his own right. But this didn’t mean this was a good idea.
Experienced as Dobrovolsky and his crew were, they hadn’t received the same training the original crew had. They’d trained for only four months before launch time. Nevertheless, the Soviets felt they were ready for action, so off they went.
The mission started with promise. The Soyuz 11 took off with no problems and arrived at the Salyut 1 space station with its crew intact.
Dobrovolsky and the Soyuz 11 crew even successfully docked their spacecraft in the space station. But as soon as they stepped aboard, they encountered a major problem.
The Salyut 1 space station smelled like something was on fire. The crew retreated back to the Soyuz 11 for 24 hours and made repairs to the station’s ventilation system. Eventually, the Salyut 1 was made habitable. Or so they believed…
Now aboard the Salyut 1, the cosmonauts went to work. Their mission was to study the effects of zero gravity on the human body, among other things.
Part of their research included running on a treadmill aboard the space station.
They even had regular television broadcasts for propaganda purposes. Dobrovolsky and his crew starred in televised progress reports that the USSR and countries all over the planet broadcasted to their citizens. All seemed well until 11 days in, when the crew encountered another issue.
Again, the Soyuz 11 crew smelled a burning stench, and this time, smoke accompanied it.
Luckily, the crew was able to quickly locate the source of the smoke, which turned out to be a malfunctioning part. They fixed the problem, or so they thought.
In the end, the crew spent 23 days aboard the Salyut 1, beating the previous record for time in spacial orbit by five days. With after setting this record and performing 141 separate experiments, it was time to return home.
The Soviet crew gathered up all of their research notes, recordings, and other essentials and loaded it onto the Soyuz 11.
They were all in good health at the time they boarded their ship and undocked from the station.
But as they prepared the ship for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, they had no idea how terrible everything was about to go. This is the part of the story where it gets scary, so be prepared when reading on.
Dobrovolsky and his crew orbited Earth three times before initiating their descent. Mission control radioed the team.
They said they were looking forward to seeing them soon on “Mother Earth.” The commander’s reply was, “Thank you, be seeing you.”
From there, the Soyuz 11 crew initiated every landing procedure exactly as they were trained to. The ship’s rockets blasted for the correct length of time, the reentry capsule successfully separated from the hull and its parachutes deployed. Everything seemed to be going well.
Loss Of Contact
However, during all of this, mission control was no longer able to contact the Soyuz 11 crew.
They radioed them several times, but received no reply. So when the re-entry capsule landed in remote Kazakhstan, recovery units were concerned as they rushed to the scene.
Mission control had instructed the Soyuz 11 crew not to exit the spacecraft without assistance. They didn’t know what 23 days in space would do to their bodies, so the Soviets wanted medics on hand for immediate treatment just in case.
The recovery team located and approached the sealed reentry capsule. It too seemed fine. No fiery wreckage.
From the outside, the landing had been a success. But when the recovery team knocked on the exit hatch, there was no response.
Finally, they opened the hatch themselves. “On opening the hatch,” reported Russian official Kerim Kerimov in Space Safety Magazine, “they found all three men in their [seats], motionless, with dark-blue patches on their faces and trails of blood from their noses and ears.”
The rescue units rushed to save the three cosmonauts, removing the men from the reentry capsule.
They laid them out on the ground and administered CPR on the still-warm body of Commander Dobrovolsky. However, it was already too late.
All three men were already dead. How did this happen? Upon re-entry, they had spoken to them, and the landing was performed perfectly. Yet, the men lost their lives. What exactly was the cause of this? When and where did they die?
It turns out that as the re-entry capsule fell towards the Earth, an equalization valve regulating air pressure malfunctioned.
It opened too early and caused the pressure in the capsule to match that of space. The pod became a vacuum 104 miles above the ground.
The cosmonauts died when the vacuum conditions inside their capsule hemorrhaged all the blood vessels in their brains. In seconds, they were knocked out. Minutes later, they were dead. Officially, their deaths occurred in space.
The Soviet Union posthumously awarded Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev with Hero of the Soviet Union gold stars.
They also held a ceremony honoring the cosmonauts. The U.S.S.R., U.S.A. and every space-faring country learned a lesson from this.
Had the three men been wearing the appropriate gear, and had the mission not been so rushed, they would have survived. After this, America and Russia changed protocol to state that crewmen must always wear a pressurized suit when depressurization is possible.