Shown at the funeral of the
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Shown at the funeral of the Soyuz-11 crew in early August 1971 at Red Square are
(left to right) Boris Chertok, Yuriy Semyonov, and Vakhtang Vachnadze.
Over the five days from 25 through 30 June 1971, fate had dealt us three
blows: on the 25th, the death of Isayev; on the 27th, the failure of N-1 No. 6L;
and on the 30th, the death of the Soyuz-11 crew. There was no doubt that
throughout July and August our staff would be given a shaking by at least two
independent commissions: one for the N-1 and the other for the Soyuz. After a
brief hesitation, the Politburo added to Keldysh’s concerns. They made him chair-
man of the government commission investigating the causes of the death of the
Soyuz-11 crew. They appointed Georgiy Babakin deputy chairman. Members of
The Hot Summer of 1971
the commission were Afanasyev, Glushko, Kazakov, Mishuk, Grushin, Shcheulov,
Frolov, Burnazyan, Shatalov, and Tsarev (commission secretary).
Keldysh convened the first commission meeting on 7 July. Opening the
meeting, Keldysh announced that in addition to the members of the commis-
sion appointed by the administration, from TsKBEM he had invited Mishin,
Bushuyev, Chertok, Tregub, Shabarov, and Feoktistov, and—at the request of
the Ministry of Defense—Karas.
“We are obliged to submit a report to the Central Committee and Council
of Ministers within two weeks,” said Keldysh.
He went on to say that that morning he had been invited to the Politburo
along with Smirnov and ministers Afanasyev and Dementyev.
“After expressing his sorrow over what had happened,” continued Keldysh,
“Leonid Ilyich asked that I tell you that under no circumstances has this given
rise to any mindset for curtailing operations. We need to figure out as quickly
as possible what caused this and continue the program of flights using long-
duration space stations. Over the past few days various groups created to assist
our commission have performed a great deal of work, and therefore, we shall
begin by listening to what these working groups managed to find out.”
Mishin was the first to report. He spoke in detail about the modifications
and how the Soyuz-11 7K-T vehicle differed from its predecessors. Since
November 1966 a total of 19 vehicles had been launched. Of these, 17 were
7K-OK models and two were 7K-Ts. The last one, 7K-T No. 32, differed
from the previous one [Soyuz-10] only in terms of its modified docking
assembly. Before descent, no in-flight off-nominal situations were recorded
on vehicle No. 32. All operations for descent proceeded normally until the
moment of separation. According to the data from the Mir recorder, at the
moment of separation the pressure began to drop in the Descent Module.
Over a period of 130 seconds the pressure dropped from 915 to 100 mil-
limeters of mercury.
Keldysh interrupted Mishin: “The Commission needs to know by all
means about all abnormalities, not only on the vehicle but also on the station.
We need to prepare a list of all, I repeat, all glitches without exception. The
entire prehistory needs to be clear to us. In particular, explain: why did we
begin flights into space in spacesuits and then do away with them so quickly?”
51. These men represented various branches of the Soviet space program including industry
(S. A. Afanasyev, V. A. Kazakov, A. I. Burnazyan, and A. I. Tsarev), designers (V. P. Glushko
and P. D. Grushin), the Air Force (M. N. Mishuk and S. G. Frolov), the Rocket Forces (V. I.
Shcheulov), and cosmonauts (V. A. Shatalov).
Rockets and People: The Moon Race
Mishin made a show of instructing Tregub and Feoktistov to prepare
posters with a list of all glitches by tomorrow morning. He must have been
very uncomfortable. First, because the guilty party in the tragedy, the news
of which had spread throughout the world, was TsKBEM, and consequently,
he, its boss and chief designer. Second, this disaster came on top of the N-1
failure, for which TsKBEM was ultimately also at fault. Each accident had
specific responsible parties. The blame for each of them might be different.
The fact that everyone collectively didn’t know, didn’t foresee, didn’t under-
stand something served as a general excuse. That’s the very learning process
that Korolev used to talk about. These arguments come in handy for a lawyer
if a case were to go to trial. But this was a trial where each person was his own
investigator, prosecutor, judge, and lawyer. Even the aim of the members of
the Commission was not to look for the guilty party, but to understand what
caused the disaster. Each of them had his own failure. And each understood
full well that there were no evildoers or slovenly individuals here. There were
flaws or unexplored spots in a large system. They needed to be hunted out.
It was difficult for Mishin to answer Keldysh’s question about why we had
done away with spacesuits. Korolev had made that decision personally before the
launch of Voskhod [in 1964]. It was also impossible to fit three men in spacesuits
in the Soyuz Descent Module. When Korolev was alive only Kamanin had
come out strongly in favor of spacesuits. But chief planner of piloted vehicles
Feoktistov had himself flown without a spacesuit with Komarov and Yegorov.
He actively supported Korolev’s initiative. Mishin had nothing directly to do
with abandoning spacesuits. No problems had arisen with maintaining pres-
sure integrity during a single one of the Vostok, Voskhod, and unpiloted and
piloted Soyuz flights. Somehow demands to reinstate flights in spacesuits were
of their own accord forgotten.
Mishin set forth some scenarios, supporting them with posters that
Feoktistov put up.
“After landing, the Descent Module was checked out and no damage was
found. Depressurization could have occurred due to two causes. The first is
the premature actuation of a breathing vent valve. In this case the pressure
should fall according to the upper curve. The second possible cause is an
improper hatch seal. The curve of the calculated pressure drop when the valve
is opened precisely coincides with the recording of the actual pressure drop
after separation. In addition to the coincidence of the calculated and actual
drop curves, we have evidence from the descent control system (SUS). The
recording of the SUS behavior shows the presence of off-nominal disturbance.
Judging by the magnitude and character, this disturbance coincides with
the calculated value for the egress of air from the opening formed when a
breathing valve is opened.”
The Hot Summer of 1971
Grushin interrupted Mishin, trying to understand why this breathing vent
was necessary in the first place.
“Is the valve closed on the launch pad? It’s closed. Is it closed throughout
the entire flight? It’s closed. Is it closed during descent? It’s closed. And you
only open it at an altitude of 2 or 3 kilometers above Earth. You open up the
hatches anyway right after landing. You’ve outsmarted yourself here somehow.”
Unintelligible explanations began as to why this valve was necessary. To be
perfectly frank, they were very unconvincing and contradictory. The discus-
sion that had started became even more complicated after it was determined
that in addition to this [breathing] valve, which is opened automatically by
an explosive cartridge, there is also a manual butterfly valve. It was provided
in the event of a water touchdown. By turning the handle of this valve, it is
possible to block off the opening formed by the ill-fated breathing vent valve
so that water doesn’t get into the Descent Module.
Mishuk asked how the electrical scenario had been analyzed and why no
one was talking about it. I answered that both the telemetry recordings and
the autonomous recorder data had been thoroughly examined. There were no
indications that a false premature command had been issued to the explosive
cartridge opening the valve. An analysis of the Mir recordings showed that
pressure integrity was lost at the moment of separation of the Descent Module
from the Habitation Compartment. The pressure drop curve corresponded to
a hole size equal to the cross section of a single valve. In fact there were two
valves: one was a feed valve and the other a suction valve. If a false command
had passed, then both valves would have opened right away: electrically, they
were in the same circuit. The command to open two valves passed nominally,
as it was supposed to at a safe altitude. According to the findings of specialists
from the Scientific-Research Institute for the Operation and Repair of Aviation
Technology (NIIERAT) (that’s the clever title worn by the Air Force institute
that holds a monopoly in the investigation of all aviation disasters), the explosive
cartridges were not actuated in a vacuum, but at an altitude corresponding in
time to the issuance of a nominal command.
But by this time one valve had
already opened without the electrical command.
“In your opinion, what kind of evil spirit could have opened it at an alti-
tude of 150 kilometers?” asked Kazakov.
“Let’s not get carried away prematurely with one scenario,” intervened
Keldysh; “we need to discuss all of them on equal terms. I propose that we
listen to Shabarov and medical science.”
52. NIIERAT—Nauchno-issledovatelskiy institut ekspluatatsii i remonta aviatsionnoy tekhniki.
Rockets and People: The Moon Race
Shabarov reported on the results of the analysis of the data from the Mir
recorder, which for us performed tasks similar to a “black box.” In aviation
disasters recovery crews hunt for the “black box” among the charred remains
of the airplane, and we removed it safe and sound from a Descent Module
that had executed a normal landing.
“The separation process lasted just 0.06 seconds,” reported Shabarov. “At
0147 hours 26.5 seconds, a pressure of 915 millimeters of mercury was recorded
in the Descent Module. One hundred fifteen seconds later it had dropped to
50 millimeters and continued to fall. During entry into the dense layers of the
atmosphere the operation of the SUS was recorded. G-loads reached 3.3 units
and then decreased. But the pressure in the Descent Module began to slowly
increase: there was an inflow of air from the external atmosphere through the
open breathing vent. Here on the chart is the command to open the valve.
We see that the intensity of the inflow has increased. This corresponded to
the opening of the second vent on command. Analysis of the Mir recordings
confirmed the scenario of the opening of one of the two vents at the moment
the vehicle modules separated. The temperature on the Descent Module’s
structural ring, not far from the hatch rim, reached 122.5°C [252.5°F]. But
this was due to the general heating upon entry into the atmosphere.”
“Before we go any further, let’s hear the results of the medical investiga-
tions,” proposed Keldysh.
Burnazyan made the report.
“During the last days of the flight the physical condition of the cosmonauts
was good. They had been taking invigorants. They did three hours of general
physical conditioning exercises every day. Dobrovolskiy had a resting pulse rate
of 78 to 85. His blood pressure was normal. Volkov was more emotional. His
pulse was high, in general; before separation of the vehicle modules his pulse
reached 120. Patsayev’s pulse was from 92 to 106. Based on the experience of
other cosmonauts, pulse rates reached as high as 120 during peak periods, and
Tereshkova’s even went up to 160. During the first second after separation,
Dobrovolskiy’s pulse rate increased immediately to 114, and Volkov’s to 180.
Fifty seconds after separation, Patsayev’s respiration rate was 42 per minute,
which is characteristic for acute oxygen deprivation. Dobrovolskiy’s pulse
quickly dropped and his breathing stopped at about that time. This was the
initial period of death. At the 110-second mark, no pulse and no breathing
is recorded in all three of them. We believe that death occurred 120 seconds
after separation. They were conscious for no more than 50 to 60 seconds after
separation. During that time, evidently, Dobrovolskiy wanted to take some
sort of action, judging by the fact that he had thrown off his safety belts.
“Seventeen top specialists were called in for the autopsy. Subcutaneous
hemorrhaging was found in all three cosmonauts. Air bubbles, like fine sand,
The Hot Summer of 1971
had gotten into their vessels. All of them had hemorrhaging in their middle ear
and ruptured eardrums. Stomachs and intestines were bloated. Gases—nitrogen,
oxygen, and CO
—dissolved in the blood—seethed under the acute low pres-
sure. The gases dissolved in the blood, after being transformed into bubbles,
occluded the vessels. When the pericardium was opened, gas escaped: there
had been air plugs in the heart. The vessels in the brain looked like strings of
beads. They were also clogged with air plugs. Also indicative of the enormous
emotional stress and acute oxygen deprivation is the amount of lactic acid in
the blood—it was 10 times higher than normal.
“A minute and a half after touchdown, resuscitation attempts began. They
continued for more than an hour. It is obvious that given this degree of injury
no resuscitation methods could save them. In the history of medicine, and
very likely not just medicine, there are no comparable examples known, and
nowhere have experiments been conducted, not even on animals, to determine
the body’s reaction to such a regime of pressure reduction—from normal atmo-
spheric pressure to virtually zero within dozens of seconds. There have been
cases of depressurization of flight suits at altitudes in excess of 10 kilometers.
In these cases the pilot lost consciousness from lack of oxygen, but when the
airplane descended he regained consciousness. In this case, irreversible processes
occurred over the course of dozens of seconds.”
Burnazyan’s calm report made a harrowing impression. Mentally plac-
ing themselves into the Descent Module, everyone tried to imagine how the
cosmonauts felt during those first seconds. The excruciating pain throughout
their bodies prevented them from thinking and comprehending. Certainly they
heard the whistle of escaping air, but their eardrums quickly burst and silence
set in. Judging by the speed of the drop in pressure, they were able to actively
move and attempt to do something for perhaps the first 15 to 20 seconds.
The government commission for the investigation of the causes of
death of the Soyuz-11 crew broke into groups according to scenario and areas
of expertise. Three days later another plenary session of Keldysh’s commission
took place. This time the leaders of the investigative groups had already reported.
With regard to Mishin’s comment that the cosmonauts “could have figured
out by the sound to plug the opening with their finger,” Yevgeniy Vorobyev
officially declared that given that rate of pressure drop they would have lost
consciousness in 20 seconds.
“To figure out what had happened, unfasten the safety belts, and find the
hole beneath the interior paneling within 20 seconds is unrealistic,” Vorobyev
said. “They would have had to have been trained to do that beforehand. We
tested the ability to close the breathing vent using the manual drive, which
is done in the event of a touchdown in water. This operation takes 35 to 40
Rockets and People: The Moon Race
seconds under calm circumstances. So they had no chance of saving themselves.
Clinical death occurred 90 to 100 seconds later simultaneously in all of them.
“Meanwhile we affirm that 23 days in space could not have caused their
condition to deteriorate. We affirm that subsequently we will give our approval
for cosmonauts to stay on the station for 30 days.”
“There can be no discussion of how many days until we establish the cause
of this incident and completely eliminate the probability of it happening again,”
concluded Keldysh, closing the meeting.
The root cause of the depressurization of the Descent Module was
not immediately apparent, and the fierce arguments continued. Now it was
difficult to find the individual who was the first to come out with the scenario
that became the leading hypothesis during all subsequent investigations con-
ducted per the commission’s decisions.
The two compartments—the Descent Module and the Habitation
Compartment—were firmly linked together. The surfaces of the Descent Module
and Habitation Compartment docking rings were held together with eight
pyrobolts. During assembly the installers tightened the compartments together
using special torque wrenches. The operation was critical and was monitored
not visually, but in a special pressure chamber. The interface must be airtight.
According to another requirement, the Habitation Compartment and Descent
Module must instantaneously separate along this interface before landing.
How was this done without unscrewing the tightening bolts? Very simply.
The bolts needed to be pulled apart by an explosion. Each bolt had a powder
charge, which was detonated using explosive cartridges triggered by an electrical
command from the sequencer. All the pyrobolts were detonated simultane-
ously. In a vacuum, a shock wave can only spread through metal. Its impact
is so strong that a valve mounted in the same structural ring as the explosive
bolts could spontaneously open. That’s such a simple scenario.
We began performing experiments at our factory and at NIIERAT. Valves
were subjected to stability tests under exposure to large impact loads. The
Politburo-imposed two-week deadline for the commission’s work passed, but
dozens of experiments did not bring the proof that was so indispensable. The
valves had not opened due to explosive shock.
At Mishuk’s suggestion, several valves that had intentional manufacturing
defects were assembled at the factory. From a quality control standpoint, they
were obvious scrap parts. But even they wouldn’t yield to explosive shock. Out
of frustration, Keldysh, who almost every day reported to Ustinov about the
progress of the work and once a week to Brezhnev, proposed that the Descent
Module and Habitation Compartment separation process be simulated in the
large pressure chamber. It was assumed that during the simultaneous detonation
The Hot Summer of 1971
of all the pyrobolts in a vacuum, the shock wave spreading only through metal
would be more powerful than at normal atmospheric pressure. “We’ll delay
the report a week, but we’ll have a clear conscience: we did everything that
we could,” Keldysh said.
One of the organizers of this very difficult experiment was Reshetin—at that
time chief of the design department that had been responsible for developing
the Descent Module. Today, Andrey Reshetin, a doctor of technical sciences,
professor, and my colleague in the core department of the Moscow Physical
Technical Institute, recalls, “We conducted this complicated experiment in the
large pressure chamber at the Cosmonauts Training Center in Star City. The
Descent Module and Habitation Compartment mockups were held together
with standard pyrobolts. The breathing vents were intentionally installed with
manufacturing defects, which supposedly could have taken place during their
production. The pyrobolts were detonated simultaneously according to the con-
figuration used in flight. The experiment was conducted twice. The valves did not
open. The true cause of the opening of the breathing vent during separation of
the Soyuz-11 Descent Module and Habitation Compartment remained a secret.”
Instead of the two weeks set aside for the commission and everyone par-
ticipating on it, a month passed. Over the course of this month they prepared
radical proposals guaranteeing the cosmonauts’ safety in the event of Descent
Gay Severin, who was in charge of the Zvezda Factory, made use of his
considerable aviation experience and quickly developed the new Sokol (Falcon)
spacesuits. The number of crewmembers would have to be reduced from three to
two. A life-saving oxygen unit occupied the place of the third cosmonaut. In the
event of the Descent Module’s depressurization an automatic control was trig-
gered, starting the flow of oxygen from the tanks. This unit would allow the crew
to survive for the amount of time required for descent even without spacesuits.
To Ilya Lavrov, the most emotional of our life-support systems developers,
the cosmonauts’ deaths were a profound personal tragedy.
“I’m tearing myself up over the fact that I went along with Feoktistov and
Korolev to do away with spacesuits. I wasn’t able to persuade them to install
simple oxygen units with masks, which were widely used in aviation. Of course,
given such a vacuum, a mask wouldn’t have saved anyone, but it would have
prolonged their lives by 2 or 3 minutes. Perhaps, that time would have been
enough to close the opened breathing vent using the manual valve.”
Lavrov and Boris Penek’s electrical engineers spent six months developing
an emergency oxygen system. In addition to all sorts of other measures, they
introduced a quick-closing manual drive for the breathing vents.
“And as far as the final wording of the causes is concerned,” said Keldysh
at the commission’s final meeting, “we will consider that the opening of the
Rockets and People: The Moon Race
valve was the result of a shock wave spreading over the metal of the structure.
This is a probabilistic phenomenon. In order to achieve it under real conditions
it would be necessary to conduct dozens or hundreds of experiments. After
those measures, which will be implemented at the recommendation of our
commission, evidently, it will no longer make sense to continue these costly
pyrobolt firings in pressure chambers.”
And that was that. However, when we had estimated how much weight it
would take for all the projected measures, we wept. In order to maintain the
Soyuz spacecraft’s weight limit, the planners persuaded Mishin to take off the
solar arrays. The argument was simple: from now on the Soyuz would be just a
transport vehicle for delivering a crew to the orbital station and returning it to
Earth. Soyuzes were no longer needed for independent long-duration flights.
After docking with the DOS, the Soyuz’s chemical batteries would be charged
from the DOS power system before returning to Earth.
dragged on. It wasn’t until 26
July 1972 that a Soyuz under the
name Kosmos-496 executed an
unpiloted flight. After a series of
failures with orbital stations, one
more unpiloted Soyuz was tested
on 15 July 1973, under the name
a piloted flight of the new space-
craft take place. In the press it was
referred to as the transport Soyuz.
Vasiliy Lazarev and Oleg Makarov
were the first cosmonauts to test
out this Soyuz after the death of
Georgiy Dobrovolskiy’s crew. They
did not fly until September 1973
on Soyuz-12. Soyuzes continued to
be operated with a two-man crew
Over that period of
time 18 piloted flights took place.
From the author’s archives.
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