Quiet Victims of Soviet Space Exploration

People had to sacrifice a lot of human lives before the first man was launched in space

This is an excerpt from the book by Valery Sharov, which is going to be published in Russia soon. Valery Sharov is a biologist and a reporter. In 1990 he successfully passed the creative selection, all medical committees and eventually found himself in the so-called Star Town, which trains cosmonauts. He was going to fly to the international space station Mir. In 1992 he finished the space training course, and obtained the qualification of a cosmonaut-explorer. However, he did not manage to fly to the space station on account of the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, Valery Sharov wrote a book, which described episodes of his training in the Star Town, as well as unknown emergency occasions that happened to Soviet cosmonauts, and other interesting material.

The horrible tragedy that took place in the USSR in 1960 was probably the first serious victim of the humanity for the sake of the space exploration. That victim was probably the largest one too. The tragedy happened on October 24th, 1960, during the launch of the Vostok spacecraft. It should be reminded here that the launch was carried out under a very serious time trouble condition. The tragedy happened twelve days before the first manned space flight in history was supposed to take place (on November 5 the same year, timed to another Soviet power celebration, as it usually happened in the USSR). The explosion of the Vostok spacecraft killed 54 people, including Soviet Marshal Nedelin. They actually burnt alive, although the country and the rest of the world did not know anything about the horrid tragedy. However, it was decided to adjourn launching the first cosmonaut in order to remove all defects that were shown as a result of the blast. The first manned flight was delayed for the period of only one week. All members of the first group of Soviet cosmonauts, all space designers continued their preparations for the grand breakthrough of the human civilization. However, space took a lot of human victims before a first man was launched there. Man had to pay a huge price for the daring idea to explore space.

Another horrible tragedy took place on March 23, 1961, twenty days before the first-ever manned flight (on April 12, 1961).  A member of the first group of Soviet cosmonauts, pilot Valentin Bondarenko, had to undergo a standard test in a pressure chamber, which modeled the situation of the low-oxygen atmosphere. The conditions of the chamber were equal to the Earth atmosphere at the height of five thousand meters, although the chamber was filled with pure oxygen in order to preserve the pilot’s health. At about one o’clock in the morning, Valentin Bondarenko had to change sensors on his body. He took some spirit to wipe the spots, on which he was going to stick sensors to. Passing by a hot electric oven, which he used for warming his meals, he incidentally dropped a spirited cotton tampon right on a red-hot spiral of the oven. Everything turned to fire in the chamber that instant. The track suit that Valentin was wearing went on fire immediately. Before the chamber was opened, they had to reduce some pressure inside it. When the chamber was finally opened, Valentin was still alive, although his entire body was burnt. The only thing that he managed to say after that was: “Do not blame anyone, I am guilty of that myself.” Valentin Bondarenko died in three hours after the accident. “Little ring” was his nickname in the group: cosmonauts called him like that for his thin voice. He could become one of the first cosmonauts, although he fell a space exploration victim instead. Valentin was only 23 years old at that time – he was the youngest man in the group.

As it turned out, space required not only such “simple” sacrifice as a human life. Some people were ready to give their lives away on the way of the space exploration, although it was not enough. People had to pay another kind of price for their aspiration.

When Soyuz 5 Soviet spacecraft was coming back to Earth, the most horrible situation of space flights occurred to cosmonaut Boris Volynov (with the exception for those situations, of course, which ended up in cosmonauts’ deaths). When Soyuz 5 reduced its speed to descend, it did not separate from the instrument-assembly module. The spacecraft was flying to the Earth with a totally unprotected part forward, not with a heatproof bottom. Soyuz 5 went on fire. A group of cosmonauts witnessed the scene. They were watching the descend in the Mission Control, they heard Volynov’s voice too, they realized, what the end of that story would be. Everyone was on high alert, hoping that it would be possible to save their friend. However, no one could do anything about it all – people had to wait and hope.

There was another incident, which was about to end with a tragedy. Two Soviet cosmonauts received a radiogram on board their spacecraft. It was ordered to correct their orbit by means of a double-pulse maneuver. There was a technical mistake in the radiogram, though: it mentioned the opposite direction of one of those pulses. Any pilot would find such a mistake immediately, for such things are noticeable at once. A pilot would either contact a flight control officer to specify the command, or just change it himself. However, cosmonauts fly in a very abstract way – celestial mechanics laws are distant from them so far. The majority of them, even former pilots, do not sense a space flight the same way as a pursuit plane pilot senses it. The cosmonauts simply activated the opposite correctional impulse of the engine. Luckily, the Mission Control noticed the mistake, and everything was put in order very quickly. The impulse was very small –only five meters a second. If it had been 50 meters a second, the spacecraft would have taken cosmonauts straight to Mars.

On the photo: Vostok manned spacecraft

Valery Sharov


Translated by Dmitry Sudakov


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Author`s name Olga Savka