The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project|
Soyuz 11: Triumph and Tragedy
As the Soviets departed from Houston,
was completing its 20th day in orbit docked with Salyut I. This record
breaking flight had been  heralded by Keldysh
as beginning a new era in space exploration. On 9 June, Blagonravov
had declared in an article prepared for Krasnaya Zvezda
In the opinion of Soviet
scientists, such stations with replacement crews constitute mankind's
main highway into space. They can become unique launching pads for
flights to other planets. Large scientific laboratories will spring
up for research into space technology and biology, geophysics and
medicine, astronomy and astrophysics. . . . In time, such stations
will be linked with earth not only by radio but by a regular space
mail. By periodically putting small supplies of fuel aboard, it is
possible to insure the station's long-term existence by switching on
the engines and reestablishing the velocity lost as a result of
braking in the upper layers of the atmosphere.54
The three-man crew of Soyuz 11 (call signal
"Yantar"), Georgi Timofeyevich Dobrovolskiy, Vladislav Nikolayevich
Volkov, and Viktor Ivanovich Patsayev, had entered the space station
on 7 June. The joined configuration of Soyuz and Salyut was 21.4
meters long with a total living space of 100 cubic meters, which gave
the cosmonauts a place to conduct scientific experiments, relax, and
sleep. For the next 23 days, each crewmember performed his scheduled
experiments, which emphasized the study of human performance under,
and reaction to, prolonged weightlessness. On the 29th, after
completing their flight plan, the space dwellers transferred their
scientific records, film, and log books to Soyuz in preparation for
their return home.
At 9:28 in the evening, Dobrovolskiy undocked
the ship and drifted free from the space station. After three
additional orbits, the Soyuz
11 crew notified ground control that
they were beginning their descent. Mission ...
11 (left to right): V. I.
Patsayev, G. T. Dobrovolskiy, and V. N. Volkov train for their
mission (Tass from Sovfoto).
 ...Control radioed:
"Good bye, Yantar, till we see you soon on mother earth."
Dobrovolskiy replied: "Thank you, be seeing you. I am starting
orientation."55 At 1:35 a.m. the retrorockets were fired automatically
for a seven- minute burn, and the parachutes were deployed on
schedule. Mission Control tried repeatedly to contact the crew at
this time, but to no avail. When the recovery crews reached the
descent vehicle and opened the access hatch, Dobrovolskiy, Volkov,
and Patsayev were dead in their contoured couches.56
The accident was a stunning blow to both the
Soviet Union and the international aerospace community. Once again,
the experimental and risky nature of man's venture into space had
been made clear. While the three bodies lay in state and a Special
Commission investigated the cause of the multiple deaths, wide
speculation spread in the West over the significance of the tragedy
for the continuation of manned space flight.
One of the prevailing theories was that man
might not be able to survive long periods of weightlessness. For
several years, there had been a serious debate among scientists about
the effects of prolonged weightlessness. During Project Gemini, there
had been "signs" that the human heart grew lazy after an extended
time in zero gravity. Then in July 1969, the monkey Bonny aboard the
U.S. Biosatellite 3 died of heart failure after recovery from a 9-day
However, there were other theories regarding
the Soviet disaster. George Low discounted the heart failure story,
and Dr. Walton Jones, Deputy Director of Life Sciences in the Office
of Manned Space Flight suggested that the men had died as the result
of their cabin decompressing rapidly. The crew was found strapped in
their seats with no apparent indication of any struggle. (The crew
did not rely on space suits.) Dr. Jones said that this is how they
would have appeared if a valve had leaked or the shell of the cabin
had ruptured. In Houston, Dr. Charles Berry, flight surgeon to the
astronauts, thought that the accident might have been caused by the
release of a toxic substance. MSC Director Gilruth favored the
decompression theory. Whatever the cause, both Soviet and American
aerospace leaders realized the seriousness of the problem and its
implications for manned flight in general and for the compatibility
discussions in particular.57
As thousands of Muscovites filed by the
funeral bier of the three cosmonauts on 1 July, Soviet President
Nikolai V. Podgorny, Premier Kosygin, and Party General Secretary
Leonid I. Brezhnev took turns standing watch as part of the honor
guard. President Nixon on behalf of the United States told the Soviet
The American people join in
expressing to you and the Soviet people our deepest sympathy on the
tragic deaths of the three Soviet cosmonauts.
 The whole world followed the exploits of these
courageous explorers of the unknown and shares the anguish of their
tragedy. But the achievements of cosmonauts Dobrovolsky, Volkov and
Patsayev remain. It will, I am sure, prove to have contributed
greatly to the further achievements of the Soviet program for the
exploration of space and thus to the widening of man's
In addition, the President sent U.S. astronaut
Thomas P. Stafford to Moscow as his official representative for the
funeral ceremonies held in Red Square.59
Soviet space leaders were quick to reaffirm
their plans to continue manned space flight. Writing for
on 4 July, Petrov spoke of the conquest of space as a "difficult
path," but he repeated Brezhnev's earlier statement - "Soviet science
considers the creation of orbital stations with replacement crews to
be man's highway to space." The scientist argued that man could play
his most important exploratory role in the study of the earth and in
astronomy from platforms positioned in "near-earth space."
Furthermore, such earth orbital investigation is only valuable when
it is conducted for extended periods on a regular schedule. Petrov
said that "the seventies will be the epoch of development and broad
application of long-term manned orbital stations with replacement
crews, which will make it possible to switch from episodical
experiments in space to a regular watch by scientists and specialists
in space laboratories."
Summarizing the work conducted on board Salyut
by the crew of Soyuz
11, Petrov restated the value of their
contributions to science. In addition to the medical and biological
experiments, they had carried out a number of studies related to
weather and earth resources. According to the Soviet spokesman, the
data returned in Soyuz would be used by students of agriculture, land
reclamation, geodesy, and cartography, as well as by meteorologists
to improve their forecasts. With words apparently aimed at domestic
critics of the Soviet manned space program, Petrov reported:
The experience of the cosmonauts'
work has shown that the Salyut manned station is a space laboratory
well adapted for experiments in orbital flight conditions. Such
stations are opening broad prospects for the continuation and
development of the research carried out by the first Salyut crew. . .
. Ahead lie new flights into space and the creation of new inhabited
orbital stations of the Salyut type. Undoubtedly, even larger and
more complex manned multipurpose and specialized space stations will
be built. But the significance of the work carried out by the first
crew of the first manned orbital station . . . will never
The Special State Commission investigating the
deaths released a public statement on 12 July. After reporting that
the flight had  proceeded normally
up to the beginning of reentry, the Commission stated:
On the ship's descent trajectory,
30 minutes before landing, there occurred a rapid drop of pressure
within the descent vehicle which led to the sudden deaths of the
cosmonauts. . . . The drop in pressure resulted from a loss of the
ship's sealing. An inspection of the descent vehicle . . .showed that
there are no failures in its structure.61
The reasons for the "seal" failure were still
under investigation, this terse statement continued.
While the official report apparently
eliminated weightlessness and physical deconditioning as causes for
the accident, the seal failure statement raised a new question.
Americans preparing for Apollo 15 wondered if the Soyuz problem was
of the type that might be experienced with an Apollo spacecraft. MSC
Director Gilruth wrote Petrov shortly after the accident and asked
him that question. Petrov reassured the Americans that "the drop in
pressure resulted from a concrete failure of one of the elements of
the descent vehicle system. Since it is a matter of specific and
particular defect we are sure that it cannot be related to 'Apollo'
11's misfortune did not affect NASA's
plans for the launch of Apollo 15, but it did lead to some
discussions outside the space agency on the safety of Soviet
54. Library of Congress,
Federal Research Division, "Soyuz-11 Triumph and Tragedy," S & T
News Feature, Item No. 454 [n.d.].
55. V. Golobachev and T.
Borisov, "Duty Carried Out to the End," Trud, 2 July
56. "Cause Sought in
Soyuz Tragedy," Aviation Week and Space
Technology, 5 July 1971, pp. 12- 15;
and Peter Smolders, Soviets in
Space (Guildford and London, 1973),
57. "3 Cosmonauts in
Space Lab Found Dead after Recovery," Washington Post, 30 June
1971; Arthur J. Snider, "Has Man Reached His Space Limit,"
Washington Evening Star, 30 June 1971; Don Kirkman, "Soyuz Air Leak Blamed,"
Washington Daily News, 1 July 1971; Robert C. Cowen, "Soviet Loss
Underscores Space Dangers," Christian
Science Monitor, 1 July 1971; Thomas
O'Toole, "Soyuz 11 Deaths Assessed," Washington Post, 1 July
1971; Jonathan Spivak, "Deaths of Cosmonauts Are Unlikely To Delay
U.S. Space Program," Wall Street
Journal, 1 July 1971; Charlotte
Saikowski, "Space Tragedy Probed," Christian Science Monitor, 1 July 1971; and interview, Charles A. Berry-W. David
Compton, 10 Apr. 1975. See also NASA Press Conference, MSC,
"Statement on the Soyuz 11 Flight," 30 June 1971.
58. TWX, George G.
Coletto to all Station Directors, MSFN, 30 June 1971.
59. Stuart Auerbach,
"Cosmonaut Deaths Laid to Faulty Hatch," Washington Post, 3 July
1971. Low offered the following statement on 30 June: "The death of
the three Soviet Cosmonauts is a terrible tragedy. They were pioneers
in their achievements in space - in establishing the first manned
space station. Our hearts go out to their families and to their
60. Petrov, "On the
Threshold of New Achievements," Pravda, 4 July 1971;
"Salute Missions to Go On," Washington
Post, 5 July 1971; Walter Sullivan,
"Tragedy: When the Hatch Was Opened the Men Were Dead,"
New York Times, 4 July 1971; and Bernard Gwertzman, "Soviet Space
Scientist States Salyut Program Will Continue," New York Times, 5 July
61. TWX, Goddard Network
Operations Control Center to all Station Directors, 13 July 1971;
Bernard Gwertzman, "Cause Confirmed in 3 Soyuz Deaths,"
New York Times, 12 July 1971; and Dean Mills, "Russia Blames the
Soyuz Deaths on Failure of Seal," Baltimore Sun, 12 July
62. Petrov to Gilruth
[n.d.; with enclosure, letter, Yu. P. Khomenko to Gilruth, 17 July
1971]; and "Russia, U.S. Exchange Space-Tragedy Notes,"
Baltimore Sun, 20 July 1971.
63. "Apollo's Safeguards
Are Emphasized by U.S. Space Experts," Chicago Tribune, 20 July
1971; and Thomas O'Toole, "Apollo 15 Crewmen To Suit Up To Avert
Soyuz 11 Disaster," Washington
Post, 20 July 1971.