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.
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:
"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:
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