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The first Soyuz mission – forty years on

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti)

April 23, 1967 marks the date when the world-famous Soyuz spacecraft lifted off for the first time with a human aboard. And March 16 of this year might have been the 80th birthday of Vladimir Komarov, the Soviet cosmonaut who died tragically on board that craft.
Komarov’s second space flight proved fatal. Earlier, aboard the multi-seat Voskhod spacecraft, he had joined other cosmonauts – scientist Konstantin Feoktistov and physician Boris Yegorov – to make the first-ever venture into space wearing no spacesuits – an act bordering on recklessness. With the space race on, Yury Gagarin’s Vostok had been hastily converted into the multi-seat Voskhod by removing the ejection seat from the descent module. But the “new” model still could not hold three cosmonauts in spacesuits. Fortunately, the mission ended well.
Komarov’s second journey into space was on board the Soyuz-1. Today, it is the world’s most reliable spacecraft. Its improved version is used as a standby rescue vehicle on the International Space Station. But at that time, it was surprising indeed that a spacecraft that had completed only two (not quite successful) unmanned flights should have been sent aloft with a human aboard.
The idea for the Soyuz-series craft originated with Sergei Korolyov, the founder of the Soviet space program. It was also during his lifetime that its systems began to be tested. But the tests, particularly the parachute drops, ran into difficulties: several full-scale replicas broke down when dropped from aircraft to check their automatic operation and their parachutes.
When Korolyov died, the pace of the tests did not slow down. But Vasily Mishin, who replaced him as general designer of his rocket-building bureau, did not have Korolyov’s formidable reputation and often was unable to withstand strong pressure from above. Meanwhile, the country’s leadership was impatient: in the previous two years the USSR had made no manned flights, it said.
In the end, the designers, too, gave into temptation and decided that the presence of a cosmonaut aboard would lay to rest most of the questions raised by the previous missions and guarantee a successful docking with another spacecraft, which was to be launched the next day with a three-member crew. Upon docking, two crew members from the second craft were to change over to the Soyuz-1 and return to Earth aboard it.
Speedy preparations were made to meet the May 1 deadline. The lift-off took place on April 23, 1967. Trouble began when the spacecraft entered orbit. One of the solar battery panels failed to unfold. It emerged that the “lame” Soyuz-1 could not approach and link up with the other craft, because its center of gravity had shifted and its power system had become unbalanced.
Then the controls developed some glitches. The solar-stellar sensor became covered in mist and was unable to ensure the descent orientation by using lift-to-drag ratio. The new ionic attitude-control system was also faulty. The malfunction was caused by so-called “ion pits” in the atmosphere which were not known to exist previously. The cosmonaut had to orient the craft manually, by means of an optical sight.
Komarov made a professional, competent and comprehensive review of all problems encountered during the flight and began preparations for a return to Earth. The descent could have been only ballistic, i.e. with high G-loads, because the ionic attitude-controls were out of order. His last words picked up on the ground were: “This is Rubin calling. Separation beginning…” The reference was to the separation of the compartments. Then the cosmonaut’s voice got lost in background noise. Next, disaster struck: the main parachute failed to open, and the descent capsule hit the ground at tremendous speed, crumpling up and catching fire.
Following the separation and braking in the upper atmosphere, events had developed as follows: a brake parachute was released and unfolded. But it failed to pull out the main parachute canopy. As dictated by the logic of the system, a spare parachute was released, but it did not fill out because it found itself in the “aerodynamic shade” of the brake parachute.
The causes of the disaster were not immediately identified, and so the TASS news agency wrongly reported that “when the main canopy billowed out at an altitude of seven kilometers…the shroud lines got tangled up, failing to check the headlong descent which resulted in Vladimir Komarov’s death.”
The descent module hit the ground at a speed of more than 50 meters/second. When the flames on the site of the crash were put out, only congealed pools of the molten aluminum that had made up the module’s body, along with the upper titanium frame, were found.
A state commission that looked into the causes of the disaster said they were due to the very compact design of the parachute container and its deformation as pressure built up when the container lid was jettisoned. But it emerged that the parachute just could not get out of the container. And not only because of the deformation. The brake parachute needed a force of not more than 1,500 kilograms to pull out the main one, while the actual figure, as later experiments showed, was nearly 2,800 kilograms, corresponding to the weight of the descent module.
When the parachute was stowed in the container, wooden beetles were used to pound it in, so high was the friction against the container walls. Also, in violation of the rules, the container lid was not on when the descent module was tested in an autoclave. At high temperatures, its thermal protection cover gets polymerized and produces colorless resins, which are deposited on the metal and, having adhesive qualities, can greatly increase the friction coefficient.
As for the tangling of the shroud line, there was none – although in later models (just to be on the safe side), swivel shackles were installed to prevent it.
Komarov’s remains were brought to Moscow and interred in the Kremlin wall. He had turned 40 shortly before his death.

Yury Zaitsev is an academic adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-