50 years ago: The Soyuz 11 tragedy

Soyuz 11 after landing, after the crew . . .

***

Everything is going according to plan, I assure you.  The hatch between the reentry module and orbital module of the Soyuz 11 is sealed.  It was just a false indication; the hatch seal wasn’t breeched.  Yes, the crew, our Yantars (“Amber” the mission’s call name) — mission commander Georgi Dobrovolsky, flight engineer Vladislav Volkov and test engineer Viktor Patysayev — our Yantars have pulled through, despite a lack of training, despite the frictions.  We have the first residency of a space station, Salyut 1. We have a new space endurance record; 24 days, as June 29 becomes June 30, 1971, in Moscow.  We are ready to celebrate. Soon. It’s now 1:22 a.m., and Soyuz 11 is passing over South America on a course to the northeast.  Over the middle of the Atlantic, the braking rocket will automatically fire.  We’ve heard the last from the crew for the moment, words from flight commander Dobrovolsky.  “Here everything is is in order.  The crew is excellent.  We thank you for your help and good wishes.”

*

All continues well, I assure you.  We have radar tracking.  The braking maneuver, a 3-min. burn instituted at 1:22 a.m., Moscow time, was a complete success.  Fifteen minutes later, the three components of the Soyuz separated:  the orbital module on top, and the equipment module on bottom were jettisoned, no longer needed.  The bell-shaped crew module is on its own, flying automatically.  

*

All is well, I assure you, even though we have not heard from the crew. We have tracking, the descent module is continuing on a course over Germany.  Over Poland.  Over the U.S.S.R, and into radio blackout at 1:54 a.m., Moscow time.

*

We’re in fine shape, approaching landing at 2:18 a.m. in the primary zone east of Dzhekazgan in northern Kazakstan.  Landing to occur ten minutes after sunrise.  Even though, yes, yes, we have not heard from the crew. Communications can be erratic. All is well, I assure you.

*

There — the recovery helicopters have detected signals from the Soyuz 11, the first since the return began.  Telemetry shows the Soyuz 11 is descending on its main parachute.  Just as I said all along.  Prepare to celebrate a record-breaking flight. Prepare to open your bottle of cognac.

******

“Good-bye, Yantars, until the next communication session.”

—- Silence. And more silence.  Everything ended the second explosive bolts fired to jettison the orbital module.  The Soyuz was equipped with two ventilation lines, just 2 cm in diameter, designed to open at 5 km altitude to let fresh air into the cabin.  Each line had two check valves, one automatic and one manual. The automatic ones, ball valves, were locked closed, held tight by a screw, a screw that was not torqued to the proper tightness, ready to jar loose.  They are kept closed until far into the descent.  At the proper altitude, explosive bolts would open them. The manual valves are operated by the crew turning knobs, one is kept open; the other shut.

—- Silence . . . then at module separation, a whistling noise — air escaping. Due to the tight confines of the cabin, the crew does not wear pressure suits.  Nor does the descent module even have an oxygen system.   

—- A whistling and a warning klaxon.  The hatch — it must be the hatch.  Dobrovolsky unbuckles and check the hatch.  No leak.  The others turn off the klaxon and the radio.  Listen:  the whistling is coming from one of the ventilation ports.  Which one?  The one located near Dobrovolsky?  Or the one on the other side of the module near  Patysayev?   Patysayev’s valve should be the open one, according to plan (with the other ventilation line held as backup in case of a water landing).  But it’s closed!  It’s the other valve that’s open.   Dobrovolsky begins to turn the knob.    

—- Too late, too late.  The crew only has about 15 seconds of useful consciousness.  And in less than a minute, the cabin is totally depressurized. They die of pulmonary embolisms. In the vacuum, which lasts 11 minutes until the module reaches into the atmosphere, their blood boils.

—- Yet when they are pulled from the spacecraft, they look, despite bruises, so peaceful. As if asleep.

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