Boris Volynov's little known near-death experience in space

On January 18, 1969, engineers in Moscow’s mission control listened as cosmonaut Boris Volynov returned from orbit. But the cosmonaut’s reports were far from comforting: his spacecraft’s landing module had failed to separate from the bulky equipment module, which meant almost certain doom.

Soyuz

The Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle capable of carrying manned missions to the International Space Station. First launched in 1967, it’s the longest flying family of space vehicles, and generally thought of as a reliable workhorse in spaceflight. But this wasn't always the case.

Soyuz was the Soviet answer to Apollo. This three-man spacecraft, a significant improvement over its Vostok and Voskhod predecessors, was the Soviet vehicle designed for lunar landing missions. It was the first Soviet vehicle that could actively maneuver in orbit for rendezvous and docking, a necessary ability for the nation’s planned lunar exploration missions. Like Apollo, the Soviets planned to send a lander to the lunar surface that would return to a mother ship waiting in lunar orbit before traveling back to Earth.

The basic Soyuz spacecraft was (and still is) in three parts. The central until is the Descent Module, the portion that carries the crew during launch and reentry. Attached at the back of the Descent Module is the Equipment Module, a unit that contains the rocket engines and power supplies for the spacecraft. Opposite this unit at the front end of the Descent Module is the Orbital Module, an additional module that provides the crew with more living space. This module also contains the radios and docking equipment that allows the spacecraft to link with others.

Things didn't start out well for Soyuz. In 1967, Vladimir Komarov was the lone cosmonaut on the first mission, Soyuz 1, which launched with known flaws. The spacecraft was struck by a series of technical malfunctions, including the parachute’s failure to deploy, and Komarov hit the ground traveling over 300 miles per hour. The largest surviving piece of his body was a heel bone.

A modern-day Soyuz, TMA-6, approaching the International Space Station on April 16, 2005

Soyuz 4 and 5

Soviet engineers had improved the vehicle by the time it was ready for another manned flight. From October 26 to 30, 1968, cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoy orbited in Soyuz 3 and returned safely to Earth. The follow-up mission upped the ante. Channeling former chief engineer Sergei Korolev’s rule that no mission be repeated, Soyuz 4 would fly at the same time as Soyuz 5, giving the cosmonauts the opportunity to dock the two spacecraft and then transfer from one to the other. It was a test of the technology, maneuvers, and life support systems the Soviets hoped to use on their own Moon landings.

Soyuz 4 launched on January 14, 1969, with lone cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov on board. Soyuz 5 followed a day later with a full crew: Commander Boris Volynov, Flight Engineer Aleksei Yeliseyev, and Research Engineer Yevgeny Khrunov. After spending a day settling in, the mission’s main event got underway.  The two Soyuz spacecraft docked, making the first docking of two manned vehicles in space. Then, a little after noon Moscow time on January 16, Yeliseyev and Khrunov left Soyuz 5 and made a 37 minute spacewalk into Soyuz 4. The cosmonauts would stay in their new spacecraft, as the mission parameters dictated that the men would reenter in their rearranged crew configuration.

Soyuz 4 returned to Earth on January 17 without incident. Volynov, now alone in space in Soyuz 5, remained in orbit.

The next day, January 18, it was Volynov’s turn to come home. But as soon as he began his fall through the atmosphere, things started going very, very wrong. Like its predecessors, the Soyuz spacecraft was designed to jettison its extra modules; the Descent Module alone had a heat shield and could protect the cosmonaut from the fiery reentry through the atmosphere. But also like its predecessor, this spacecraft separation wasn't clean. Though the explosive bolts fired, Soyuz 5’s Equipment Module failed to fully separate from the Descent Module. Looking out the window Volynov could to see the Equipment Module's whip antennas. The cosmonaut confirmed what he saw by feel. The sensations he felt as he tried to turn the spacecraft by manually firing his thrust rockets was consistent with a failed separation. He told himself not to panic and radioed his situation to a tracking ship that passed the news on to Mission Control.

On the ground, it didn't take engineers long to realize the seriousness of the situation. The Soyuz heat shield was at the base of the Descent Module, but with the Equipment Module attached, the heat shield was blocked. Exposed sections of the spacecraft would be experiencing the 9,000 degree Fahrenheit heat of atmospheric reentry, temperatures hot enough to destroy both modules and the man inside.

In mission control, helpless men buried their faces in their hands. For Volynov, facing death, doing nothing was impossible. He continued making reports into his voice recorder and writing notes in his flight log. He had just celebrated his 34th birthday in his Moscow apartment a few weeks earlier. Thinking about it, he was seized with a desire to live.

Yuri Gagarin, left, and Volynov at a picnic in Dolgoprundy

A Flaming Re-Entry

Through the spacecraft’s small window, Volynov saw flames from the burning Equipment Module lapping the sides of the Soyuz. He heard ominous grinding noises as the deceleration stresses built up. The ship tumbled end over end, exposing all of its surface to the growing fireball before stabilizing with its nose forward, an orientation that exposed the thinnest part of the spacecraft’s skin to the reentry heat. There was only an inch of insulation here compared with the six inches along the Soyuz’s bottom. It was these six inches that were designed to burn away during a normal reentry.

Volynov eventually lost radio contact. His only companions were explosions, the sounds and shock waves of which emanated from the Equipment Module’s overheating fuel tanks. He watched as the hatch on his capsule bulged inwards, yielding to the building heat and air pressure. The rubber seal on the hatch began to smoke. Flames seared his cabin walls and smoke from the singed insulation filled the cabin. He pressed himself hard against his restraining straps, trying desperately to avoid coming into contact with the steaming hatch. Desperate to leave some record of the flight after his certain death, Volynov jotted notes into his flight logbook then tore out the most recent pages and stuffed them deeply inside his jacket.

The spacecraft kept tumbling until, miraculously, it settled into the proper orientation. The mechanical malfunction that had kept the Equipment Module attached had been overcome either by the stresses of reentry or the fiery heat.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev awards Volynov the Order of Friendship of People on Cosmonautics day, April 12, 2011

A Hard Landing and Recovery

Volynov wasn’t out of the woods yet. Nearly 1,250 miles from his intended landing site (and the waiting recovery crews) Soyuz 5 came in for a landing. The tumbling reentry had damaged the spacecraft’s parachutes and its persistent spin left it tangled in the chutes’ lines, but the landing was somewhat controlled. Controlled but hard. The force of impact ripped Volynov from his seat and threw him across the cabin. He hit his face hard enough to knock out his top front teeth. Silence filled the cabin as his mouth filled with blood. Aware that he’d survived, Volynov hear a hissing sound as the overheated spacecraft skin melted the snow in which it had landed. Gradually the outside cold seeped into the cabin; it was 36.4 degrees below freezing (Fahrenheit) outside.

Out in the cold, a search party followed radar data to find the spacecraft. They did, hours later, but there was no cosmonaut inside. Finding only footprints and bloody spots where Volynov had spit in the snow, rescuers followed Volynov’s path through the forest to a cabin where peasants were keeping him warm. The cosmonaut had seen and followed the trail of smoke coming from their chimney.

Aftermath

The details of Volynov’s harrowing reentry weren't made public; once they learned that the cosmonaut was alive, Soviet officials promptly ordered him to say nothing about the trials of his flight. The details stayed hidden until 1997, when an official history was released that contained a mention of the incident. Volynov was finally recognized as a hero, and a very lucky one at that.

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