Morbid or not, the fact is that death is inevitable. Sooner or later, it’s going to happen to all of us.
We never know how or when it’s going to happen, but most of us prefer to think we’ll live to a ripe old age and pass away peacefully, surrounded by our families.
But crashing full speed into Earth from space while your body turns to molten remains from the impact? It’s probably not on the top of your list of preferred ways to die – if ever a list did exist.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to the Russian cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, in 1967.
Potentially, the worst part of the whole story is that he knew full well he was going to die – it was simply a case of him waiting for it to happen.
As Komarov waited to be plummeted to his tragic fate while he circled the globe in the shoddily constructed space vehicle which was running dangerously low on fuel, he spoke on the phone with Alexei Kosygin, a high official of the Soviet Union.
Little did the two men know that U.S. intelligence (The National Security Agency) was listening in to their intense and poignant final conversation, from their facility at an Air Force base near Istanbul, Turkey.
The book Starman was written by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony just over a decade ago, and describes how the tragic events of that fateful day unfolded.
According to the book, the NSA analyst Perry Fellwock, listening in from the base in Istanbul, overheard Komarov tell ground officials he knew he was about to die.
Fellwock described how the Soviet high official Kosygin, who was crying, called Komarov on a video phone to tell him he was a hero.
Tragically, Komarov’s wife was also on the call to say her goodbyes to her husband and to talk about what she would tell their children.
As he plummeted to his death, the U.S. listening posts heard him ‘crying in rage’, cursing the people who were responsible for putting him inside a ‘botched spaceship’.
Starman tells the story of the friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin, who was the first human to reach outer space.
Both of the men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission in 1967, and both of them reportedly knew that the space capsule wasn’t safe to fly.
According to the book, Komarov told his friends that he knew he would probably die. The reason he didn’t back out? He didn’t want Gagarin – his replacement and close friend – to die.
It was the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, who decided to stage the mission, which would see two Russian space vehicles meeting in space.
The plan was to launch the Soyuz 1 capsule with Komarov inside, and a second vehicle with two additional cosmonauts the next day. The vehicles would then meet, and Komarov would crawl from the shoddily-constructed Soyuz to the other, exchange places with a colleague, and return home in the second ship.
Brezhnev was dead set on the mission going ahead, hoping it would be a Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution.
The reality was a world away – no pun intended – from what the Soviet leader had in mind.
It was Gagarin who had the guts to speak up against the mission before its launch when he, along with some senior technicians, inspected the Soyuz 1 and found 203 structural problems.
The problems were so serious that they would make the machine ‘dangerous to navigate’ in space. As a result, Gagarin suggested that the mission should be postponed.
Following his discovery of the structural problems, it was simply a matter of who would tell Brezhnev, the leader of the entire operation – and of the Soviet Union – who was determined to launch the mission.
Gagarin bravely wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev… but nobody dared send it up the chain of command.
Reportedly, everyone who saw Gagarin’s memo was demoted, fired, or sent to treacherous Siberia.
With less than a month to go before the launch, Komarov soon realised that postponing it was not an option – and even told Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.”
When Russayev asked Komarov why he didn’t refuse the mission, he answered: “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead.”
That backup pilot was his close friend, Yuri Gagarin.
The book quotes Komarov as saying: “That’s Yura, and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.”
He then burst into tears.
Komarov quite literally sacrificed his own life for the ‘Soviet hero’ Yuri Gagarin.
On the capsule’s launch day, April 23, 1967, Russian journalist Yaroslav Golovanov reported that Gagarin turned up to the site and demanded to be put into a spacesuit, wanting to fly instead so he could save his friend, Komarov.
Nevertheless, the flight left with Komarov on board.
The failures began as soon as the Soyuz started orbiting the Earth. Power was compromised, antennas failed to open properly, and navigation was difficult. The launch of the second ship was swiftly cancelled, leaving Komarov stranded in space with little chance of survival.
According to the book, Yuri Gagarin was ‘profoundly depressed’ following his friend’s death, feeling guilty that he was unable to put a stop to the mission when he raised concerns – or be allowed to fly instead.
He died in a plane accident the following year, before the Americans reached the moon in 1969.