Travelling to space and back to Earth, while glamorous, is not without its risks. Members of the Apollo 1 mission didn’t make it off of the launch pad before a fire took their lives. The Challenger space shuttle exploded on its way to space. Columbia exploded on its return. But for all of the dangers facing these brave explorers, only three men have actually died in space.
Georgy Dobrovsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patasyev are the three Russian cosmonauts with that distinction. They were killed 104 miles (168 km) above the Earth. The official boundary between our atmosphere and space is 62 miles (100 km). While virtually unknown to non-Russians, their deaths were cause for a day of mourning in Moscow, and they are one of only two group state burials in Soviet history.
The three were part of the Soyuz 11 mission. They launched on June 6, 1971 and docked with the Soviet Union’s space station, the Salyut 1. They became the first in history to successfully dock with a space station and inhabit it.
The crew performed routine tasks while on the space station. They tested the maneuverability of the station, took some observations of the Earth’s surface, and observed how well humans managed being in space for an extended length of time. At the time, no one had spent as much time in space as these three.
Except for a fire on the 11th day of their mission, everything went pretty much as planned. On the 22nd day, they boarded the Soyuz spaceship and prepared to return to Earth.
Soyuz rockets consist of three parts. Only the re-entry capsule returns to Earth with the crew. Explosive bolts separate the capsule from the rest of the spacecraft. The problems began when the bolts all fired simultaneously instead of one at a time as they were designed to do. The resulting explosions were too much for a nearby seal, and it began to leak.
Once the capsule began to leak air into space, the crew had 13 seconds to find and seal the leak before losing the ability to function. They would fall unconscious in 60 seconds and die in less than two minutes. Investigators determined it would have taken a minimum of 52 seconds for the crew to successfully seal the leak. So, once the leak began, their fate was sealed.
Since the landing sequence was handled through automatic systems, the ground crew had no knowledge of the crew’s situation until they landed. Frantic efforts to revive the men were unsuccessful.
The accident caused NASA some distress. No one had ever been in space as long as these three men. Until the investigation was completed, it was believed that being in orbit that long had caused their deaths. NASA was planning to launch their own space station, Skylab, in 1973 and were concerned that it was not safe to be in orbit for the time needed to perform experiments. When the details of the investigation were released, it cleared the way for the longer missions we have seen in more recent times.
Another result of the investigation was the discovery that pressurized suits would have saved the cosmonauts’ lives. Until that time, no one had been required to wear the suits into space. Since that discovery, all visitors to space have been wearing them.
Although not famous throughout the world, the three men have been memorialized in space. The moon has a plaque dedicated to their memory which was left there by the Apollo 15 mission. There are three craters on the moon named after the three men. Also, a group of hills on Pluto has been named after the men.
The successful habitation of a space station was expected to be the Soviet’s triumphant response to the USA’s moon landing. The three men were considered heroes in the USSR. It is estimated that the mourners who paid their respects as the cosmonauts lay in state numbered in the tens of thousands. Citizens openly wept in the streets. Even Leonid Brezhnev was so moved by the deaths of the three men, he had to cover his face as he paid his respects. The Soviet heroes had been killed, but all space travelers since that tragic Soyuz 11 mission are safer because of their sacrifice.