Monday, April 8, 2013

We Aren't The Only Ones, Part 4

by Stephanie Osborn

A bit more on the Soviet space program's failures, then on to China next week. Excerpted from A New American Space Plan, by Travis S. Taylor and myself, from Baen Books.


In 1971 the Soviets put up the world’s first space station, Salyut 1. Sort of like our Skylab, it was expendable and there was a whole series of these stations, military and nonmilitary. It was generally a successful program.

Except for the first flight to Salyut 1, Soyuz 11.

Soyuz 11 was the only manned mission to Salyut 1. All went nominally until it came time for reentry. At that time, the pyrotechnic bolts that were to release the service module from the reentry module fired simultaneously instead of sequentially. This in turn jolted open a breathing ventilation valve at an altitude of 104 miles (168 km) and bled the reentry vehicle’s atmosphere off into space. As it was located underneath the seats, the cosmonauts couldn’t locate and plug it fast enough to stop the loss of atmosphere. And due to the cramped conditions and the presence of 3 crew members, space suits were not worn for these early flights.

Flight recorder data later indicated the crew went into cardiac arrest within forty seconds. Within 212 seconds (less than four minutes) of the separation, the cabin pressure was zero. As a result, ground control lost communications with the crew long before the reentry comm blackout should have begun, realized that conditions were off-nominal, and began emergency preparations for the landing. The crew was found at the landing point, dead inside the cabin. Attempts were made to perform CPR by the service crew, but it was much too late.

In 1975 Soyuz 18a had the first ever manned launch abort. It’s forward momentum carriedit some thousands of miles downrange, nearly into China—which the Soviets were on particularly bad terms with at the time. It came down in the mountains again, sliding down the side of one, and nearly toppling off a cliff. This time, tangled parachutes saved the cosmonauts by snarling in the trees and preventing the sheer drop. The crew was pretty banged up.

In 1980 a Vostok rocket blew up on the launch pad. Forty-eight people died.


It should be noted that, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian space program has, to my knowledge, not suffered a single major setback that has resulted in loss of life.

Next week as promised: The Chinese space program.

-Stephanie Osborn