Firsts in Space

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 7 June, 2018.

During the early 1970’s, the Space Race was in full swing. The Americans had landed a man on the moon during 1969, and the Soviets were reeling from the loss of their lead in the race to conquer space. Having heard of the American Skylab space station programme, and having lost the race to the moon, their focus shifted towards manned orbital space stations. 

So in early 1970, construction began on Salyut 1 (Russian for ‘Salute’ (naturally) or ‘fireworks’). Its purpose was merely to test the elements of a space station, and its basic design would be built upon for decades to come. As an initial test station, it was not large – 20m in length, 4m in diameter with about 99 cubic metres of interior space. It had only three pressurized compartments, of which two could be entered by the crew.

The first of these compartments was the transfer compartment – a docking port, essentially, allowing one Soyuz spacecraft to dock. Its docking system is still in use today on the International Space Station. The second and main compartment was the main compartment, with enough space for eight chairs, several control panels, and about 20 portholes. The third pressurized compartment contained its control and communication equipment, power and life support systems. An unpressurized four compartment contained engines, batteries and reserve supplies of oxygen and water. Also attached to the Salyut 1 was the astrophysical Orion 1 Space Observatory. This ultraviolet telescope took spectrograms of the stars Vega and Beta Centauri during its operation. 

Its launch was initially planned for 12 April 1971 to coincide with the 10 year anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight on Vostok 1, but launch was delayed until the 19th. Its first crew would launch with the Soyuz 10 mission, but they experienced problems with docking, and could not enter the station. The Soyuz 10 mission was aborted and a replacement crew was launched in Soyuz 11.

On 7 June 1971, 47 years ago today, the crew of the Soyuz 11 successfully docked, and became the first men to man a space station. Commander Georgy Dobrovsky, Flight Engineer Vladislav Volkov, and Test Engineer Viktor Patsayev remained on board for 23 days, setting space endurance records that would hold until the American Skylab mission.

When they first entered the station, they encountered a smoky and burnt atmosphere, and had to replace a part of the ventilation system and retreat to the Soyuz until the air cleared. The crew continued with their mission, checking the design and systems of the orbital station, testing the procedures for orientation and navigation as well as the associated control systems. 

In orbit, they also studied the Earth’s surface in terms of geology, geography, meteorology and snow and ice cover, while studying phenomena in the atmosphere and conducting medico-biological studies on the effects and influence on long-term spaceflight on humans. Interestingly, they found that using the exercise treadmill as they were required to do twice a day caused the whole station to vibrate! During the course of the mission, Victor Patsayev also became the first man to operate a telescope outside of Eareth’s atmosphere, when he operated the Orion 1 Space Observatory. 

On 18 June, an electrical fire broke out on the station, and mission planners considered abandoning the station. Finally, on 29 June, after flying 362 orbits around the Earth, the crew was ordered to return to Earth. They re-entered Soyuz 11, and started re-entry. Their capsule parachuted to a soft landing in Kazakhstan, and all seemed well for their mission. 

When the recovery team found the capsule, however, they realized something went wrong. Kerim Kerimov recalled, “Outwardly, there was no damage whatsoever. They knocked on the side, but there was no response from within. On opening the hatch, they found all three men in their couches, motionless, with dark-blue patches on their faces and trails of blood from their noses and ears. They removed them from the descent module. Dobrovolsky was still warm. The doctors gave artificial respiration. Based on their reports, the cause of death was suffocation.”

The fault was traced to a ventilation valve located between the orbital and descent module, which had incorrectly opened about 12 minutes after the start of their descent. Opened at an altitude of 168km, the loss of pressure was fatal within seconds. Biomedical sensors show cardiac arrest had occurred within 40 seconds of pressure loss. The Soyuz 11 crew had become the first, and to date only, humans to die in space. 

As a result, the Soyuz capsules were redesigned to allow crew to wear pressure suits, and due to the time it took to redesign, Salyut 1 was deorbited on October 11 without ever receiving another crew. The world’s first space station burned up over the Pacific Ocean after 175 days in space. The Salyut programme continued, however, with Salyut-7 being more commonly known as the Mir Space Station, and it’s final module, Salyut-8 known as Zvezda, the core of the Russian segment of the International Space Station.

For the crew of the Soyuz 11, the world of Richard Nixon put it best: “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.” On August 1, 1971, their names joined 8 Americans and three other Soviets who lost their lives in furtherance of space exploration on the Fallen Astronaut Memorial placed on the moon by David Scott.

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