This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution. Let’s go back in time to see how it was celebrated 50 years ago in the Soviet Union, in both its grandiosity and its horror.
The year was 1967. To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the October Revolution, the authorities of the Politburo were keen to hold up another victory that could make news headlines worldwide.
It was decided that two manned space missions – Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 2 – would be launched to achieve a space rendezvous and send greetings to the world. This would be capped by the pilots’ spacewalking to exchange places, and then return in triumph. The mission was set to take place on 1 May 1967, the National Day of Workers’ Solidarity.
But there was one big problem – most of the engineers knew that the mission was impossible to complete safely by that time. Recent test-launches had failed, as the technology had many errors that needed to be fixed. Proceeding in the face of this meant that the pilots would likely die on the mission.
Together with Gagarin, Komarov identified no less than 203 problems related to the Soyuz 1 spacecraft, detailed in a 10-page memo that demanded the mission be postponed. While it’s questionable as to whether this memo was sent, it’s beyond dispute that it never made it to the Kremlin.
“I’m not going to make it back from this flight”
Just a few days prior to the launch, a KGB agent, Venyamin Russayev, claimed to have overheard Komarov say, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight”. Despite the fact that he had extreme misgivings about the mission, it was virtually impossible for him to refuse the honor, knowing that his friend, Yuri Gagarin was designated the backup pilot.
Soyuz 1, piloted by Vladimir Komarov, was launched from Baikonur Space Centre on 23 April 1967 at 3:35 AM. Although the spaceship entered the satisfactory orbit of 220 km per hour, serious problems occurred soon after. One of the two solar panels did not deploy, meaning the craft lost half of its power and could not regain it. Backup telemetry antenna failed to open, so the navigation equipment could not properly function. The spacecraft started spinning as a result, making it hard to maintain control, even in Komarov’s experienced hands. Komarov’s only option was to attempt to orient the spacecraft manually, by referring to the earth’s horizon.
After five hours of struggle, the control center decided that Soyuz 2 would not be launched. The mission was adjusted to focus entirely on getting Komarov safely home.
On his 19th orbit, Komarov somehow managed to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Although it was a long-shot, there was still a chance that he could survive.
According to Russayev, during the brief window when communications functioned, Komarov was telephoned by the Prime Minister, Alexey Kosygin to say that he was a hero.
While the spacecraft was approaching the Earth – at the speed of 1,450 km per hour – its emergency parachutes failed to open. Soyuz 1 hit the ground with the force of a 2.8-ton meteorite.
Vladimir Komarov was honored in a state funeral that took place just three days after the accident.
Today another fifty years have passed and we no longer celebrate the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution with heroic space missions. Nor is there a sign of communism or Soviet Union anywhere to be found. But today we still do remember Vladimir Komarov’s space mission that was one of the most tragic in the history of mankind.