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The First Person To Die On A Spaceflight, 45 Years Ago

Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin (left) and Vladimir Komarov in Moscow in October 1961

Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin (left) and Vladimir Komarov in Moscow in October 1961

He's known as the first person to die during spaceflight.

Forty-five years ago, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died when the parachutes on his Soyuz 1 space capsule failed to deploy properly after reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. The capsule slammed onto Soviet soil near Orenburg, Russia, on April 24, 1967.

Interest in Komarov's tragic story was rekindled last year with the publication of "Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin," a biography of the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human in space in April 1961.

The authors of "Starman" -- Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony -- quoted a former KGB officer, Venyamin Russayev, as saying that Komarov, even though he was aware of myriad design flaws in the Soyuz 1, refused to back out of his flight because Gagarin was his backup pilot. He didn’t want to send a national hero to his certain death.

"I'm not going to make it back from this flight," Russayev quotes Komarov as saying.

Russayev also says that Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin spoke with Komarov as he prepared for his fatal plunge, calling him a hero as Komarov allegedly could be heard cursing both his fate and his incompetent superiors.

A search on YouTube even uncovers recordings purporting to be Komarov's final words.

Komarov's funeral near the Kremlin wall on April 26, 1967

Komarov's funeral near the Kremlin wall on April 26, 1967

The authenticity of these accounts in "Starman" have since been called into question, however, most notably in responses to a controversial blog post by National Public Radio science writer Robert Krulwich and by a website called Life's Little Mysteries:
In most historians' views, the main point of contention is the fact that the only source for all the new claims in "Starman" is the former KGB officer, Venyamin Russayev, and no one knows who he actually is.

"All the new information comes from this new previously unknown KGB former agent and 'friend' of Gagarin, and has not been verified by anyone yet. Part of the problem is we don't know how reliable of a source this person is," said Robert Pearlman, space historian and owner of the space history and artifacts website collectSPACE. "No one has heard of him until now, and while that in itself shouldn't automatically rule him out as a source for historians, it does require the authors to verify his history and share that with readers."

Krulwich was forced to backtrack from his blog post and in a follow-up gamely acknowledged the many questions raised by experts regarding Russayev's testimony:
My question is, do historians trust Russayev's testimony? Doran and Bizony seem to. They rely on it. It's the spine of their narrative. Has anyone come up with information that would disprove or contradict Russayev's version, specifically the conversations mentioned above? Asif Siddiqi [author of "The Soviet Space Race With Apollo"] sent me very specific contradictions. He says there was no conversation between Premier Kosygin and Komarov in space. He said I should check out his book. I will.

Krulwich, true to his word, followed up with a more detailed look at the inconsistencies in "Starman."

If you're into space, it's all fascinating stuff. And even without embellishment, the details of Komarov's death are haunting.

The first man to walk on the moon, American astronaut Neil Armstrong, honored Komarov, as well as Gagarin (who died in a plane crash in 1968) and Apollo 1 astronauts Roger Chaffee, Virgil Grissom, and Edward White (all killed in a launch-pad fire in 1967) by leaving a memorial to the fallen pilots on the surface of the moon in July 1969.

-- Grant Podelco

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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