The desire to travel through space is one that has captivated the human population for generations. Intrigued by the great unknown and the possibility of life on another planet, we have actively pursued more advanced knowledge and better technology, all with the intention of traveling to new locations and discovering the planets beyond our own.
It all started with the development of rocket engines, designed with the idea of carrying humans into space in the early 20th century. The Soviets were the first to launch an artificial satellite into space on October 4th, 1957, which was followed by the well-known ‘giant step for mankind’ by astronaut Neil Armstrong on July 20th, 1969. Throughout the years there are many stories, landmarks and discoveries that will be talked about for years to come, however, some stories have been forgotten over time. One such story is the tragic voyage of the Soyuz 11.
The Soviets built and launched the first space station, the Salyut 1, on April 19th, 1971. It was designed with the purpose of studying the impact of space travel on both plants and human subjects and carried both a long-range telescope and a gamma-ray telescope for further astronomical research. The first crew that would spend time aboard the space station was that of the Soyuz 10, including Vladimir Shatalov, Alexei Yeliseyev and Nikolai Rukavishnikov.
The Soyuz 10 mission did not, however, go as planned. As they attempted to dock at the station on April 24th, 1971 their attempts were marred with complications. The hatch refused to open, and they were unable to hard dock. After a second attempt, they were stuck and still unsuccessful, struggling to separate themselves from the station before canceling the mission and returning home. This wasn’t the end of their struggles. Upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere the air supply in the ship became toxic, and one of the cosmonauts, Rukasvishnikov, even passed out from its effects. Ultimately, however, all three men would make a full recovery.
The Soviets refused to give up, scheduling another attempt with the Soyuz 11. They selected a skilled crew of experienced fliers including Valery Kubasov, Alexei Leonov and Pyotr Kolodin. The trio was destined to stay firmly here on Earth, as suspicions of Kubasov having contracted tuberculosis caused the crew to be replaced. In their place, Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev launched on June 6th, 1971. They were unaware of the fact that they were heading out on what would be their last flight.
The crew had a plan in place to handle the previous docking issues, but that wouldn’t but the only challenge throughout their voyage. From a failing telescope to personality conflicts among the crew, the mission was far from smooth. After a small fire, the mission was wrapped up early after 24 of the planned 30 days aboard the space station, and the crew headed home.
It wasn’t long after the Soyuz 11 undocked from the space station that all communication was lost with the crew. They made a soft landing, however, when the hatch was open all three crew members were found inside, dead. After a thorough investigation, the Soviets released a statement explaining what had happened aboard the tragic mission:
“At approximately 723 seconds after retrofire, the 12 Soyuz pyro cartridges fired simultaneously instead of sequentially to separate the two modules… the force of the discharge caused the internal mechanism of the pressure equalization valve to release a seal that was usually discarded pyrotechnically much later to adjust the cabin pressure automatically. When the valve opened at a height of 168 kilometers the gradual but steady loss of pressure was fatal to the crew within about 30 seconds. By 935 seconds after retrofire, the cabin pressure had dropped to zero.. …only thorough analysis of telemetry records of the altitude control system thruster firings that had been made to counteract the force of the escaping gases and through the pyrotechnic powder traces found in the throat of the pressure equalization valve were Soviet specialists able to determine that the valve had malfunctioned and had been the sole cause of the deaths.”
This marked the end of the Salyut 1, with it burning up on re-entry after being deorbited. Learning from the tragedy the Soviets made significant changes to their space program. The deaths also sparked a change here in the United States, triggers a chance to the comping Apollo 15 lunar mission. The astronauts on that mission would wear their space suits during their return to the Earth’s atmosphere to avoid a similar event.