The capsule that returned from space with three dead Russian astronauts

Throughout history, different tragedies have marked the space age that began in 1957 by the Soviet Union. However, half a century ago, there was a human expedition that left a tragic record: the only three men to die in space. His story is a mixture of chance, triumph and tragedy.

It was the Soyuz-11, a manned voyage of the Soviet Soyuz space program that carried with it to Georgi T. Dobrovolski (commander), Viktor I. Patsayev (research engineer) and Vladislav N. Volkov (flight engineer).

From the beginning it was known that the travelers of this mission would impregnate their mark in the history books. It would be about the first men to settle for days on the first space station to orbit the Earth: the Salyut 1 a stronghold of the Soviet Union launched in April 1971.

However, the three cosmonauts – as astronauts in Russia are called – traveled into space by an eventuality. Two days before takeoff, one of the original crew cosmonauts (Valeri N. Kubasov) was detected with a dark spot on his chest (a possible sign of tuberculosis) and, along with his companions, was replaced by the alternate team, the of Dobrovolski.

Thus, on June 6, 1971, without pressure suits or diving suits, as Soviet space suits used to be then, the three Soyuz-11 cosmonauts said goodbye to Earth without knowing that, when they would touch it again, they would already be there. dead.

To this day, the purpose of space labs is to investigate how humans can adapt to life outside of Earth. But in the first long human stay, everything was still unknown. So the team had to perform basic experiments to record health changes in that environment.

The exhaustion of the crew was notorious, since they took turns each day to rest, so the managers of the program on the mainland decided to return them on the twenty-third day of the 25 planned. The undocking of the Soyuz-11 was scheduled for the June 29, 1971 at 21:15 hours Moscow time.

In the last dialogue of the crew, Volkov hopefully said goodbye to his companions: “We will see you tomorrow, we will prepare brandy” The files declassified by Roscosmos revealed in June 2021.

It is believed that the big problem occurred in the maneuver to uncouple the Soyuz-11 from the Salyut 1. The simultaneous detonation of the explosives used for the separation – a method that avoids mechanical jams – would have caused the opening a ventilation valve inside the capsule.

In practice, the valve had to open at a height of four kilometers from the ground, where the atmospheric pressure was equal to that of the cabin but then they were still 170 km away, in absolute vacuum. As a result, the cabin depressurized almost instantly, that is, it consumed all the air inside and caused the suffocation of the passengers. Then, they also lost communication with the control tower.

By the time the cockpit landed as planned in the city of Zhezkazgan in Soviet Kazakhstan, Dobrovolski, Patsayev and Volkov had already been dead for half an hour. Rescuers found threads of blood flowing from their noses and ears, evidence of internal bleeding in their brains and lungs. According to biomedical data from the Soyuz-11, in their last moments the pilots registered heavier than usual gasps three seconds after the valve accident.

According to doctors at the Burdenko Military Hospital in Moscow, the depressurization caused nitrogen bubbles to appear in his bloodstream, but the report of the State Commission that investigated the case did not find the exact technical fault.

Although the deaths of the three cosmonauts did not prevent the subsequent Soyuzs from taking off – which were retaken only two years later – they marked the mandatory use of pressure suits on all subsequent missions. In addition, in 1973, the Soviets developed the Sokol-K suit, which is still in use to this day.