AMU Editor's Pick Original Space

This Week in Space History – 1971: The Tragedy of Soyuz 11

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Featured Image by Photo by Richard Gatley on Unsplash. Soyuz launch seen from east of Almaty in Kazakhstan.

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In MilitaryInCyberDefense and In Space News.

On June 30, 1971, three Soviet cosmonauts died while reentering the Earth’s atmosphere after a successful docking and prolonged stay onboard the world’s first space station, Salyut 1.

To this day, Georgi Timofeyevich Dobrovolskiy, Vladislav Nikolayevich Volkov, and Viktor Ivanovich Patsayev remain the only humans to have died after exposure to the vacuum of space.

Soyuz 11 on a 1971 USSR commemorative stamp. Public Domain.

According to NASA “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 Control radioed: ‘Goodbye, Yantar, till we see you soon on mother earth.’ Dobrovolskiy replied: ‘Thank you, be seeing you. I am starting orientation.’ 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.”

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When the Soviet recovery team reached the capsule after it landed, they knocked on the side but received no response. After opening the hatch, they found all three men in their seats, motionless, with dark-blue patches on their faces and trails of blood from their noses and ears.

The doctors present tried artificial resuscitation but could not revive the cosmonauts.

The autopsies took place at Burdenko Military Hospital. They determined that the cause of death of the cosmonauts was hemorrhaging of the blood vessels in the brain, with lesser amounts of bleeding under their skin, in the inner ear, and in the nasal cavity, all of which occurred as exposure to a vacuum environment caused the oxygen and nitrogen in their bloodstreams to bubble and rupture vessels.

According to Time magazine, the cosmonauts were given a large state funeral and buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis at Moscow’s Red Square, near the remains of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. U.S. astronaut Tom Stafford was one of the pallbearers. The three cosmonauts were each posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal.

President Richard Nixon issued the following official statement after  the accident:

“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 horizons.”

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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