The Voskhod 2 was most memorable for being the first expedition to successfully complete an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity), better known as a spacewalk. Like the Soyuz 23, it was also memorable for its disastrous reentry and retrieval.
On March 19, 1965, the Voskhod 2 successfully launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying Pavel Belyayev and Alexey Leonov. It began its orbit 200 kilometers (125 mi) above Earth. After Leonov completed the 12-minute spacewalk, the cosmonauts prepared for reentry. Then the automatic orientation device failed, and they had to land the craft manually, touching down in a forest far north of the intended landing site.
For four hours, the command post was unsure of Voskhod 2’s fate, until a helicopter reported a red parachute and two cosmonauts deep in the North Ural forest. The dense woodland and deep snow prevented the helicopter from landing. With no populated areas nearby, the helicopter could only fly over the cosmonauts and report back to command: “One is chopping wood, and the other is making a campfire.”
After a night in freezing temperatures, and facing the possibility of a wolf or bear attack, the cosmonauts were relieved to see a rescue team arrive on cross-country skis. They spent one more night in the forest (now with warm clothing and a tent), then headed for a small clearing where they could finally board a helicopter. They then returned to the General Secretary and reported that their mission was complete.
Three months after the Apollo 1 tragedy, Colonel Vladimir Komarov became the first cosmonaut aboard the new Soyuz spacecraft. He faced a fate similar to those in Apollo 1. Nine minutes after takeoff on April 23, 1967, the Soyuz entered orbit and almost immediately began encountering serious problems.
During the second orbit, a solar panel that powered half the craft failed to open. By the fifth orbit, Komarov resorted to banging and kicking the side of the spacecraft to dislodge the panel. By the 13th orbit, power was critically low, so the command station decided to send up Soyuz 2 with a crew of three as a rescue mission. But an electrical storm hit the launch pad, so they abandoned that plan, leaving Soyuz 1 to fend for itself.
With things now desperate, Komarov decided to try a dangerous reentry on the 19th orbit. He wasn’t trained to reenter manually, but he managed to place the craft on its correct course. He activated his main parachute—but it deployed incorrectly. Komarov frantically deployed the backup chute, but the faulty main chute snagged it. The craft did not decelerate.
As morning broke on April 24, a number of villagers in the southern Ural Mountains witnessed a large object hurtling to the ground. Unbeknownst to them, it was Komarov, riding the Soyuz at over 140 kilometers (90 miles) per hour. He was alive and conscious right up until the point of impact.
Launching on April 5, 1975 and carrying cosmonauts Vasili Lazarev and Oleg Makarov, Soyuz 18a turned out to be another disaster for the Russian space program. Less than five minutes after takeoff, the cosmonauts were surprised to find the Soyuz was unexpectedly descending rapidly.
Lazarev later recalled: “We began to experience a creeping and unpleasant pull of gravity . . . It increased rapidly, and its rate was much greater than I had expected . . . Some invincible force pressed me into my seat and filled my eyelids with lead . . . Breathing was becoming increasingly more difficult.”
The spacecraft faced a peak of 21.3 G of force as the cosmonauts hurtled toward the ground. To put this into context, a Boeing 747 Jumbo jet reaches 0.35 G at takeoff. Suffering from what Makarov described as black-and-white vision and tunnel vision, the crew were dangerously close to losing consciousness completely.
Luckily, the main chutes deployed correctly. But any relief was short-lived because the craft now crashed into an unidentified icy Siberian mountain. On impact, the capsule fell to its side and immediately began sliding toward a sheer 150-meter (500 ft) drop. Playing out like a Hollywood movie, the parachute caught on some vegetation, and the craft came to stop just before the cliff’s edge.
As Lazarev put it, “The porthole, black with soot, suddenly became transparent, and I saw the trunk of a tree. Yes, this is Earth.”
The Russian Soyuz 11 is probably best known for being the first mission to board a space station, Salyut 1. Tragically, it is also known as the first and only mission to result in human death in outer space.
After a successful launch on June 30, 1971, the crew of Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov docked with the Salyut 1 space station for a 22-day stay. Over the next three weeks, they performed a number of scientific experiments, including measuring a human reactions to prolonged weightlessness.
Their mission done, they prepared to return to Earth. Thirty minutes before landing, the Soyuz 11 left orbit and headed for its descent trajectory. Suddenly, a critical valve blew, and pressure in the capsule dove. As their oxygen flooded out into space, the cosmonauts got hit with high-altitude decompression.
They died in less than a minute, but they did not die peacefully. Autopsies from the Burdenko Military Hospital found that within those 60 seconds, the cosmonauts experienced hemorrhages in the brain, subcutaneous bleeding, damaged eardrums, and bleeding of the middle ear. All three men would have survived—had they been provided with space suits.