by R O B E R T K R U L W I C H
So there's a cosmonaut up in space, circling the globe, convinced he
will never make it back to Earth; he's on the phone with Alexsei
Kosygin — then a high official of the Soviet Union — who is crying
because he, too, thinks the cosmonaut will die.
space vehicle is shoddily constructed, running dangerously low on
fuel; its parachutes — though no one knows this — won't work and the
cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, is about to, literally, crash full
speed into Earth, his body turning molten on impact. As he heads to
his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage,
"cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship."
This extraordinarily intimate account of the 1967 death of a Russian
cosmonaut appears in a new book, Starman, by Jamie Doran and Piers
Bizony, to be published next month. The authors base their narrative
principally on revelations from a KGB officer, Venymin Ivanovich
Russayev, and previous reporting by Yaroslav Golovanov in Pravda.
This version — if it's true — is beyond shocking.
Starman tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts,
Vladimir Kamarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to
reach outer space. The two men were close; they socialized, hunted
and drank together.
In 1967, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission,
and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told
friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn't back out
because he didn't want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his
of me. We've got to take care of him."
talking about Gagarin
The story begins around 1967, when Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the
Soviet Union, decided to stage a spectacular midspace rendezvous
between two Soviet spaceships.
The plan was to launch a capsule, the Soyuz 1, with Komarov inside.
The next day, a second vehicle would take off, with two additional
cosmonauts; the two vehicles would meet, dock,
Komarov would crawl
from one vehicle to the other, exchanging places with a colleague,
and come home in the second ship. It would be, Brezhnev hoped, a
Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution.
Brezhnev made it very clear he wanted this to happen.
The problem was Gagarin. Already a Soviet hero, the first man ever
in space, he and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1
and had found 203 structural problems — serious problems that would
make this machine dangerous to navigate in space. The mission,
Gagarin suggested, should be postponed.
The question was: Who would tell Brezhnev? Gagarin wrote a 10-page
memo and gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev,
but nobody dared send it up the chain of command. Everyone who saw
that memo, including Russayev, was demoted, fired or sent to
diplomatic Siberia. With less than a month to go before the launch,
Komarov realized postponement was not an option. He met with
Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, and said, "I'm not going to
make it back from this flight."
asked, Why not refuse? According to the authors, Komarov answered:
"If I don't make this flight, they'll send the backup pilot
instead." That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn't do that
to his friend. "That's Yura," the book quotes him saying, "and he'll
die instead of me. We've got to take care of him." Komarov then
burst into tears.
On launch day, April 23, 1967, a Russian journalist, Yaroslav
Golovanov, reported that Gagarin showed up at the launch site and
demanded to be put into a spacesuit, though no one was expecting him
to fly. Golovanov called this behavior "a sudden caprice," though
afterward some observers thought Gagarin was trying to muscle onto
the flight to save his friend. The Soyuz left Earth with Komarov on
Once the Soyuz began to orbit the Earth, the failures began.
Antennas didn't open properly. Power was compromised. Navigation
proved difficult. The next day's launch had to be canceled. And
worse, Komarov's chances for a safe return to Earth were dwindling
All the while, U.S. intelligence was listening in. The National
Security Agency had a facility at an Air Force base near Istanbul.
Previous reports said that U.S. listeners knew something was wrong
but couldn't make out the words. In this account, an NSA analyst,
identified in the book as Perry Fellwock, described overhearing
Komarov tell ground control officials he knew he was about to die.
Fellwock described how Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin called on a
video phone to tell him he was a hero. Komarov's wife was also on
the call to talk about what to say to their children. Kosygin was
When the capsule began its descent and the parachutes failed to
open, the book describes how American intelligence "picked up [Komarov's]
cries of rage as he plunged to his death."
On the Internet (89 cents at Amazon.com) I found what may have been
Komarov's last words:
Some translators hear him say, "Heat is rising
in the capsule." He also uses the word "killed" — presumably to
describe what the engineers had done to him.
Americans Died, Too
Both sides in the 1960s race to space knew these missions were
dangerous. We sometimes forget how dangerous. In January of that
same year, 1967, Americans Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee
died in a fire inside an Apollo capsule.
Two years later, when Americans landed on the moon, the Nixon White
House had a just-in-case statement, prepared by speechwriter William
Safire, announcing the death of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, had
they been marooned or killed. Death was not unexpected.
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