The fateful story of Soviet space mission Soyuz 11 and the fatal expedition that killed the only men to die in space.
There exists only one video of what followed Soyuz 11’s violent decompression. In it, we see two men sprawled over white sheets, helpless on the dead grasses of the Kazakh steppe.
Their faces are obscured by the sweating, heaving medics huddled over them, performing the kiss of life, frantically trying to save them: but their essences had been sucked out in a silent flash. Their skin is as gray and lifeless as the ground they lay upon. All crewmen were lost.
The Salyut-1 (“salute”, “fanfare”) was intended to be one of the USSR’s defining blows to the United States in the Cold War. The first space station of any kind was going to be a Soviet one, and the eager Soviets had already sent a team of three men to occupy it.
It was a hasty decision: the Soviet team had recently abandoned their lunar mission plans, and were in a mad dash to show the world that they could still make firsts in space. From the initial design phases to the actual launch of Salyut-1, only 16 months had passed.
The first manned flight to Salyut-1 was the Soyuz 10. There was a malfunction in the docking procedure and the mission had to be scrapped.
Soyuz 11 was the second attempt, and the world was leaning forward in their seats as the crew successfully completed its three-hour docking procedure with Salyut on June 7th, 1971. But the three men: Vladislav Volkov, Georgy Dobrovolsky, and Viktor Patsayev, were greeted with a troubling sight: the space station was filled with smoke.
Luckily, it was a minor glitch, and the crew spent the night in the Soyuz after repairs were completed to the ventilation system and the air was allowed to clear. The mission could properly begin. The men spent their time onboard performing experiments on their bodies and the ship itself, testing their limits to see the effects of spaceflight on the human body and the efficacy of the systems with which the cosmonauts had been equipped. Everything was going relatively smoothly, the men confident that their smoky welcome was to be the only problem.
But this was a mission that seemed cursed from the beginning. An electrical fire 11 days into the mission was just another sign that this was not going to be a typical or safe endeavor. After defying the odds, enduring two major glitches, and staying a record-breaking 22 days in orbit, the crew of Soyuz 11 had to cut their time aboard Salyut short.
Like the tragedy of Apollo 1, many of the problems onboard the Salyut were a result of hastiness and hubris. It was the Cold War and the Americans were miles ahead of the Soviets. This was their opportunity to remind the world that the USSR was a force to be reckoned with, that they had not been defeated.
Corners were cut for the sake of being “first”. But, the men had done it: they had spent 23 days in space, proving that long-term spaceflight was indeed possible. The only thing left to do was to go home and earn their place in the walls of the Kremlin. Sadly, the men would do so sooner rather than later.
The men took their seats, ensuring that all hatches were sealed and pressurized for the detachment from Salyut-1; but there was a third problem. The “hatch-open” indicator was flashing. Numerous attempts were made to reorient and seal the capsule, but to all eyes the hatch seemed sealed. Eventually, after a bit of fiddling, the light went out, and the Soyuz detached from Salyut-1.
They orbited Earth for three hours before attempting to make their descent into the atmosphere. The men were in good spirits as they began their re-entry checklists; one of them asked to be greeted back on Earth with a glass of cognac, a tradition for Russians coming back home. Then, with a quick gesture, the coordinates were entered into the Soyuz’s guidance system, and the men were ready to jettison the service module of the Soyuz and fall with fiery fanfare back to the Earth.
A familiar hiss and crash is heard over the radio as the three pieces of the Soyuz separate. Radio silence. Too much silence for a typical re-entry: the cosmonauts are supposed to give regular radio commands, just to ensure that they’re still alive.
Something must have gone wrong, the men on the ground thought. They’d be absolutely right- in separating from the service module of the Soyuz, an unchecked ventilation hose led to a catastrophic depressurization miles above the Earth’s atmosphere, killing the men in a fraction of a second.
Thankfully, they instantly lost consciousness. The spit on their tongue bubbled into vapor. Their blood boiled just the same, absorbed into surrounding tissues.
That’s what happened to Volkov, Dobrovolsky, and Patsayev on this grim morning in June: their essences were sucked right out, ventilated into space. Their bodies may forever rest in the walls of the Kremlin, but their spirits were spit out into the stars.