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Death in space: after the three astronauts of Soyuz 11 became heroes of the Soviet Union, catastrophe struck

Domagoj Valjak
Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev

On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins became the first humans in history to set foot on the Moon. Although the lunar landing was a turning point for manned space exploration, it didn’t end the tense space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., which started in the late 1940s. Since the Americans were the first to achieve the dream of walking on the surface of the Earth’s only permanent natural satellite, the Soviets shifted their efforts towards the creation of the first orbital space station.

On April 19, 1971, just a few days after the 10th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering spaceflight, Salyut 1 was successfully launched into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan. It was the first space station of any kind: Although it remained in orbit for only six months before it was intentionally driven to break up upon re-entry, a crew of three astronauts spent 21 days aboard the station and performed a series of successful scientific experiments. The astronauts, named Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, arrived in the Soyuz 11 spacecraft. Their life aboard the station was televised across the Soviet Union and they quickly became national superstars. The handsome young Volkov even became a teen idol and a pin-up icon.

Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev

Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev

By the end of the astronauts’ 21-day stay aboard Salyut 1, their mission was seen as an unprecedented breakthrough. The public across the entire Soviet Union anxiously waited for the men to return home and share their thoughts on life in low Earth orbit. Unfortunately, the mission, which was successful until the point of Soyuz 11’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, turned into a catastrophe.

Since the beginning of the space race, a number of accidents resulted in the deaths of a number of astronauts, but the men of Soyuz 11 were the only people who officially died in space, some hundred miles above the earth’s surface. The spacecraft successfully left the space station and commenced the automated re-entry procedure without any trouble. At that point, the astronauts suddenly stopped responding to the messages sent by ground control. Since the ground control’s instruments showed that the half-hour long re-entry procedure was going as planned, they assumed that the silence was a result of a minor radio equipment malfunction. However, the three unfortunate astronauts died soon after the spacecraft started its descent: one of the air vents, which was supposed to open automatically when Soyuz 11 entered the earth’s atmosphere, malfunctioned, and opened at the moment when the re-entry procedure was initiated.

This caused the pressure inside of the astronauts cabin to rapidly drop and they were exposed to the vacuum of space. The decompression caused the nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen in their blood to boil and destroy their vital organs. The men were dead within two minutes of exposure to the harsh conditions outside the spacecraft, but they were most likely conscious and in terrible pain for at least 60 seconds after the cabin lost pressure.

Ground control wasn’t aware of the accident until Soyuz 11 landed in present-day Kazakhstan. As soon as a recovery helicopter discovered that the spacecraft had landed and that it was seemingly unscathed, a full recovery team was deployed along with several camera crews that were ready to film the successful end of the mission.

Soyuz 11 on a 1971 USSR commemorative stamp

Soyuz 11 on a 1971 USSR commemorative stamp

When the cabin hatch was opened, everyone was shocked to realize that the astronauts were dead. The whole nation grieved over the deaths of three bold men who represented the pioneering spirit and the triumph of early rocket science.

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Although several researchers claimed that the astronauts may have died of psychological shock related to the long time spent in low Earth orbit and the over-exhaustion which occurred during re-entry, autopsies of the men’s bodies clearly indicated that they died due to severe decompression. Since astronauts of the time didn’t wear pressurized spacesuits during spaceflights, the ill-fated crew of Soyuz 11 had no way of protecting themselves from the sudden depressurization which mangled their internal organs. Aside from being a tragedy of early space exploration, the accident prompted all space agencies in the world to introduce pressurized spacesuits as an absolute requirement during all spaceflights.