Chernobyl has become the highest rated TV show on IMDB, soaring past greats like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. The five part mini-series has shed light on the ‘useless secrecy’ which ultimately became one of the reasons for the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. While Chernobyl was a tragedy on the large scale, with thousands of people getting affected, this ‘useless secrecy’ led to a personal tragedy – the tragedy of Cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov.
On the 12th of April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space when his capsule Vostok 1 completed one orbit of Earth. This effectively meant that the Soviet Union had won the Space Race, making him a national hero. He was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, Order of Lenin, and Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR. He was so revered, that the head of cosmonaut training in the Soviet space program Nikolai Kamanin is rumoured to have said that he was, “too dear to mankind to risk his life for the sake of an ordinary space flight”. This meant that Yuri would be on standby for every space mission since.
In 1967, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wanted to make a big mark for the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Soviet engineers proposed the sending of two spacecraft (Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 2) into space, exchange crew members, and return safely home. Vladimir Komarov was selected to command Soyuz 1, with Yuri Gagarin as his backup cosmonaut.
Vladimir Komarov and Yuri were good friends. They socialised together, drank together, hunted together. So when Yuri and some senior technicians found 203 structural problems with Soyuz 1, Vladimir had to make a tough choice. He could either back out and let his friend die, for Yuri was his backup cosmonaut, or go ahead with the mission and die. Both Vladimir and Yuri were convinced that the structural problems would make it difficult to navigate the machine in space and therefore, end in disaster.
Yuri is said to have written a 10-page memo asking for the mission to be postponed. But this memo was never passed up the chain of command, as ‘Soviet technology could never be faulty’. But Vladimir wouldn’t back out of the mission. When asked why, he is rumoured to have said, “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead. That’s Yura, and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.”
Russian journalist Yaroslav Golovanov reported that on launch day, the 23rd of April 1967, Yuri showed up at the launch and demanded that he be put into a spacesuit. But in the end, Vladimir climbed Soyuz 1, believing that he wasn’t going to make it back.
Trouble started almost immediately. One of the solar panels failed to deploy, the thermal control system degenerated, communications with the ground began to break down, and the craft started spinning out of control.
The launch of Soyuz 2 was cancelled and all efforts were focussed on bringing Vladimir back. Yuri is said to have been on the radio with his friend as Soyuz 1 went around the Earth for 5 hours, trying to navigate back home with broken equipment and intermittent contact with ground control. On his 19th pass around the Earth, Vladimir oriented the spacecraft manually and managed to fire retrorockets and re-entered the atmosphere.
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But the parachutes failed to deploy, and Soyuz 1 came crashing like a meteor. It crashed into a steppe near Orenberg at 7 A.M. on April 24, killing Vladimir instantly. It is said that all that was left of his body and the craft were twisted metal, charred remains, and a chip of his heel.
All this while, US intelligence was listening and recording Vladimir. He was heard accusing the top brass and crying in rage as Soyuz 1 came crashing to the ground.
Vladimir Komarov had an open casket funeral, as was his wish, and was honoured with a state funeral in Moscow. His ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis at Red Square.
Yuri Gagarin was devastated by the death of his beloved friend and even went on to give an interview to the state-controlled newspaper Pravda, criticising the mission. Yuri died in a plane crash the next year.
I believe that Vladimir’s story deserves to be told visually. Perhaps an on-screen adaptation from the parts dealing with Vladimir in the book Starman, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony.
But until then, we will have to make do with Chernobyl.