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he conquest of the final frontier is perhaps one of humanity’s greatest achievements. As I have written in previous articles about the history of space, I find the men and women who put their lives at risk in pursuit of human advancements to be some of the most respectable figures of human history. It takes a special kind of person to be selfless enough to put the progress of your species before the possible threat of death.

All astronauts and cosmonauts who volunteer for these space missions are at risk of death; even as technology advances, you can never be 100% sure that no device on your spacecraft will fail. Although only 19 people have died as a result of spaceflight, it is still a thought that all who go to space have at the back of their minds. Today we will explore the final voyage of the only people who had that thought in the back of their head manifest mid-flight, the Soyuz 11 crew.

Setting records

Initially, the Союз 11 (Anglicised: Soyuz 11) mission went exceptionally. Its crew, Commander Геoргий Тимофeевич Добровoльский (Anglicised: Georgy Timofeyevich Dobrovolsky), Flight Engineer Владислaв Николaевич Вoлков (Anglicised: Vladislav Nikolayevich Volkov) and Test Engineer Виктор Ивaнович Пацaев (Anglicised: Viktor Ivanovich Patsayev) docked into the first-ever space station to be put in orbit, Салют-1 (Anglicised: Salyut 1), without a hitch.

Left and center pictures were taken by the Soyuz 11 crew on departure from Salyut 1. Right picture was taken by a TsKBEM photographer satellite. Source: Collage made from Wikimedia Commons
Official emblem used in Soviet space missions: Voskhod-2, Soyuz-4, Soyuz-5, and Soyuz-11. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Soyuz 11 docked onto Salyut 1 on 7 June 1971. Its crew would remain on the station for 22 days. This, at the time, set an endurance record for the amount of time humans stayed in space. Their stay at the station was closely recorded by the Soviet newspaper Правда (Anglicised: Pravda), who reported on the cosmonauts’ every move. The crew also took part in news broadcasts beamed back home to be broadcast across the world. Due to the space station being a new concept, during their stay, the crew found many things wrong with their 22-day home. To name a few: the air filtration system broke and had to be fixed by the crew, a fire started but was quickly put out, and, perhaps most comically, while using the treadmills as required by protocol to keep their muscles in shape, the entire space station started to shake.

Not something you want to feel while you hang in low earth orbit.

Overall during their stay at the station, no great mishaps happened, and by the end of their 22-day stay, all of the crew were healthy and eager to come home. On 29 June 1971, the spacecraft departed the station.

The plan was to land the capsule in the desert of Kazakhstan, where the Soviet authorities were eagerly awaiting their return. Unbeknownst to the crew, this would be their last flight.

Normal landing, abnormal crew

Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov in 1974. Source: Wikimedia Commons

During the capsule’s rapid descent, something went wrong. Due to an error in the decoupling from the station, the landing capsule’s breathing ventilation valve was dislocated. As large forces acted on the capsule during its descent, the valve was dislodged at the approximate altitude of 168 kilometers above sea level. The cabin began to quickly lose pressure, proving fatal for the crew on board. The capsule landed as planned in the Kazakhstani desert, and to the surprise of the Soviet authorities, its crew was found to be dead on landing.

Post-mortem analysis of the crew found that it took around 40 seconds for the members of the mission to die as a result of the quick decompression of the crew module. One of the crew, Patsayev, was found reaching for the valve that controlled pressure within the cabin when the crew module was opened.

This led to investigators thinking that the crew was aware of their situation, and Patsayev tried to save everyone by manually shutting the valve.

This fault was known to the Soviet authorities as before the mission started, the man originally meant to be the commander of the mission, Алексей Архипович Леонов (Anglicised: Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov) warned the crew that the pressurization valves were unreliable and that they should be manually adjusted after splitting off from the space station.

It is still not known why the crew chose not to listen to Leonov’s advice; what is known is that this piece of advice was ignored, something which proved fatal for the crew of Soyuz 11.

Aftermath and downplaying by the Soviets

A Sokol-KV2 suit in the Speyer Museum in Germany. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leonov went on to try closing the valve that Patsayev was attempting to close manually, and, in perfect conditions, he could get the time down to around 1 minute to fully close the valve. This means that Patsayev’s efforts, although brave, were futile. The crew was doomed from the time they separated from the station.

Later versions of the Soyuz spacecraft were designed with only two crew spaces so the cosmonauts could wear the Cокол (Anglicised: Sokol) spacesuit. This was meant to protect crewmembers from sudden depressurization during their travel in the capsule, preventing such deaths from ever occurring.

The state media, which so closely followed the crew before, such as the newspaper Pravda stayed silent after their unfortunate fate was revealed.

Most newspapers tried to omit the deaths of the crew from their daily reports. Even so, most of the people of the USSR learned of the outcome of the mission quickly.

As expected, the cosmonauts received a full honors funeral led by the Soviet government. They were posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, one of the highest awards available in the Soviet Union, and were buried near the remains of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

The US president at the time, Richard Nixon, released the following statement once he learned of the deaths of the crew:

The American people join in expressing to you and the Soviet people our deepest sympathy on the tragic deaths of the three Soviet cosmonauts. The whole world followed the exploits of these courageous explorers of the unknown and shares the anguish of their tragedy. But the achievements of cosmonauts Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev remain. It will, I am sure, prove to have contributed greatly to the further achievements of the Soviet program for the exploration of space and thus to the widening of man’s horizons.

As Nixon mentioned, in my opinion, the death of the three brave cosmonauts was not in vain. They paved the way for the way we now conduct experiments in space through the use of orbital space stations. This experiment also allowed for future cooperation between the US and the USSR as it showed that docking in space was possible.

This cooperation came only 4 years later on in the form of the Apollo–Soyuz joint mission in July 1975. This was the first time in history the US and the USSR worked together on matters to do with space exploration. Although it was more of a gesture of goodwill, this event stands in history as the start of US-Soviet cooperation, an event that couldn’t have happened without the Soyuz 11 mission.

A USSR stamp released in 1971 commemorating the crew of the Soyuz 11 mission. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev will forever be remembered for the rest of time as some of the few that had to make the ultimate sacrifice in order for humanity to advance. Such a sacrifice should be remembered, commemorated, and praised. Without such people, brave men and women willing to risk their lives in the name of progress, humanity wouldn’t be where it is now.


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