On April 24, 1967, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov tragically died during the landing of the Soyuz-1 spacecraft due to a system failure onboard. Komarov became the first human in the history of space travel to have been killed during a mission.
Soyuz-1 left earth the day before, according to schedule. Its mission was to eventually dock with another spacecraft, which was to be launched shortly after, and its crew was then supposed to spacewalk to the Soyuz-1 capsule.
Exactly 540 seconds after it left earth, Soyuz-1 separated from its launch vehicle and reached a nominal orbit. This is when problems started. When Komarov was in the communication range, he informed the control room that one of the solar panels that was critical for the power supply did not open. He even knocked with his feet on the side of the spacecraft, where a simple but stubborn deployment mechanism for the solar array was located. However, this failed to solve the problem.
The undeployed solar panel, which reduced electrical power and blocked orientation sensors made a justifiable threat. Komarov’s conversation with the ground control was recorded:
“Hello, comrade Komarov. Can you hear me?”
“Hello, yes I can hear you well” Komarov answered.
“We are carefully watching your flight. We know that you have encountered problems onboard, and are doing everything to resolve them…”
Komarov did not react to this last phrase. There was silence. Ground control continued:
“What can we do for you?”
“Please take good care of my family if anything happens.”
Ground control made the decision to cancel the mission and prepare for an emergency landing during the 17th orbit, with a backup reentry opportunity during the 18th or 19th. The first attempt for landing failed, because the firing of the breaking engines was blocked by the flight control system. Ground control was closely tracking the flight, and rushed to plan another landing on the 18th orbit. Just before relating final instructions to Komarov, Soyuz-1 went out of range.
As a new communication period started, Komarov was relayed the latest instructions. The next opportunity to hear him came just before the landing. Komarov reported that he was able to orient the spacecraft to reenter the atmosphere, and that the breaking engine was active. After that connection, Soyuz-1 suddenly broke off, and Komarov was never heard again.
According to investigators, the tragedy occurred during the landing of the spacecraft, when the main breaking parachute failed to deploy, and when Komarov tried to release the reserve chute, it became tangled.
The remains of Vladimir Komarov were sent to Moscow and buried in the Kremlin wall. Not long before his death he turned 40. On the field of the catastrophe, a monument was raised to commemorate the brave cosmonaut.