Monday, April 1, 2013

We Aren't The Only Ones, Part 3

by Stephanie Osborn

Part 3 of this series takes us into the Russian manned program, specifically the Soyuz and the problems it experienced from the very beginning, as excerpted from A New American Space Plan, by Travis S. Taylor and myself.


Soyuz 1 was the first flight of the Soyuz spacecraft. It was also the Soviets’ first in-flight death. The craft was known to be faulty to begin with. The engineers reported over 203 design faults—not faulty equipment, not improperly installed, faulty design work, before the launch. Unfortunately, by this time Soviet leaders had caught moon fever. They wanted to beat the Americans to a manned landing, and they wanted to take advantage of the delay caused by the Apollo 1 fire. Oh, and they wanted to celebrate Vladimir Lenin's birthday with some fireworks. Big fireworks.

Vladimir Komarov was the primary, and Yuri Gagarin was his backup. The situation was so bad that Gagarin tried to get Komarov bumped from the primary position, because he knew that he was considered a national hero and therefore not expendable. He hoped to get the mission delayed until the problems could be fixed. He failed.

Soyuz 1 was launched, Komarov aboard. Its mission was to rendezvous and EVA with Soyuz 2. As soon as it got on orbit, one of the solar panels failed to unfurl, so the spacecraft was running on low power from the get-go.

The Soyuz 2 crew prepped themselves for a repair mission. Thunderstorms overnight at Baikonur fried the Soyuz electrical systems, so Soyuz 1 was on its own.

Then the “orientation detectors” (I assume this means gyroscopes or star trackers or some such, or maybe not) decided to malfunction, rendering maneuvering difficult. Then the automatic maneuvering system died entirely, and the manual system went on the fritz.

Once the maneuvering system went down, the flight director decided to abort the mission. At this point, everything looked like a happy ending.

Except this was a new ship. With new details. Like a thicker heat shield, and a correspondingly larger parachute. Remember those design flaws? Guess what? Nobody bothered to make the chute receptacle any bigger. In their brilliance, technicians used wooden mallets to beat the parachute into place.

So the drogue chute came out, but the main parachute didn’t. Simple enough: Komarov deployed the manual parachute. Which promptly tangled in the drogue chute. He hit the ground at an estimated 89 mph (140 km/hr).

The ship exploded.
The Soviets didn’t have too many manned firsts after that, and they never made it to the moon with a crewed lander. The same year we landed on the moon, they managed a docking and crew exchange of Soyuz 4 and 5. (The Soviets claimed that this was the world’s first space station.) Unfortunately when it came time to come home, Soyuz 5’s service module failed to separate, and the capsule with service module reentered nose first. The cosmonaut inside, Boris Volnyov, hung from his straps until the module’s struts burned through and it broke away, enabling the capsule to right itself before the hatch also burned through—the gaskets were already burning and filling the cabin with noxious fumes. But then the parachute lines tangled, and the landing retros failed, and while Volnyov walked away from that landing, he broke his teeth. He landed in—yes, you guessed it—the Ural Mountains instead of Khazakhstan, and with the temperature outside at -36°F (-38°C), he was forced to walk several kilometers to the cabin of a local.

-Stephanie Osborn