Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Starman

Source & Follow Up

Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth 'Crying In Rage'
So there's a cosmonaut up in space, circling the globe, convinced he will never make it back to Earth; he's on the phone with Alexei Kosygin — then a high official of the Soviet Union — who is crying because he, too, thinks the cosmonaut will die.


Vladimir Komarov's remains in an open casket

The space vehicle is shoddily constructed, running dangerously low on fuel; its parachutes — though no one knows this — won't work and the cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, is about to, literally, crash full speed into Earth, his body turning molten on impact. As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, "cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship."

This extraordinarily intimate account of the 1967 death of a Russian cosmonaut appears in a new book, Starman, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, to be published next month. The authors base their narrative principally on revelations from a KGB officer, Venyamin Ivanovich Russayev, and previous reporting by Yaroslav Golovanov in Pravda. This version — if it's true — is beyond shocking. 


Gagarin (left) and Komarov out hunting

Starman tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Kamarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space. The two men were close; they socialized, hunted and drank together.

In 1967, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn't back out because he didn't want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.

The story begins around 1967, when Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, decided to stage a spectacular midspace rendezvous between two Soviet spaceships.

The plan was to launch a capsule, the Soyuz 1, with Komarov inside. The next day, a second vehicle would take off, with two additional cosmonauts; the two vehicles would meet, dock, Komarov would crawl from one vehicle to the other, exchanging places with a colleague, and come home in the second ship. It would be, Brezhnev hoped, a Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Brezhnev made it very clear he wanted this to happen.

The problem was Gagarin. Already a Soviet hero, the first man ever in space, he and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems — serious problems that would make this machine dangerous to navigate in space. The mission, Gagarin suggested, should be postponed.

He'll die instead of me. We've got to take care of him.
                                    - Komarov talking about Gagarin

The question was: Who would tell Brezhnev? Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command. Everyone who saw that memo, including Russayev, was demoted, fired or sent to diplomatic Siberia. With less than a month to go before the launch, Komarov realized postponement was not an option. He met with Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, and said, "I'm not going to make it back from this flight."

Russayev asked, Why not refuse? According to the authors, Komarov answered: "If I don't make this flight, they'll send the backup pilot instead." That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn't do that to his friend. "That's Yura," the book quotes him saying, "and he'll die instead of me. We've got to take care of him." Komarov then burst into tears.

On launch day, April 23, 1967, a Russian journalist, Yaroslav Golovanov, reported that Gagarin showed up at the launch site and demanded to be put into a spacesuit, though no one was expecting him to fly. Golovanov called this behavior "a sudden caprice," though afterward some observers thought Gagarin was trying to muscle onto the flight to save his friend. The Soyuz left Earth with Komarov on board.

Once the Soyuz began to orbit the Earth, the failures began. Antennas didn't open properly. Power was compromised. Navigation proved difficult. The next day's launch had to be canceled. And worse, Komarov's chances for a safe return to Earth were dwindling fast.

All the while, U.S. intelligence was listening in. The National Security Agency had a facility at an Air Force base near Istanbul. Previous reports said that U.S. listeners knew something was wrong but couldn't make out the words. In this account, an NSA analyst, identified in the book as Perry Fellwock, described overhearing Komarov tell ground control officials he knew he was about to die. Fellwock described how Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin called on a video phone to tell him he was a hero. Komarov's wife was also on the call to talk about what to say to their children. Kosygin was crying.

When the capsule began its descent and the parachutes failed to open, the book describes how American intelligence "picked up [Komarov's] cries of rage as he plunged to his death."

Listen to Komarov as the Soyuz capsule began to fail

On the Internet (89 cents at Amazon.com) I found what may have been Komarov's last words:

Some translators hear him say, "Heat is rising in the capsule." He also uses the word "killed" — presumably to describe what the engineers had done to him.

Americans Died, Too

Both sides in the 1960s race to space knew these missions were dangerous. We sometimes forget how dangerous. In January of that same year, 1967, Americans Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a fire inside an Apollo capsule.

NARA

The Nixon White House prepared this letter in the event that American astronauts did not survive the Apollo 11 mission.

Two years later, when Americans landed on the moon, the Nixon White House had a just-in-case statement, prepared by speechwriter William Safire, announcing the death of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, had they been marooned or killed. Death was not unexpected.


Valentina Komarov, the widow of Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, kisses a photograph of her dead husband during his official funeral, held in Moscow's Red Square on April 26, 1967.

But Vladimir Komarov's death seems to have been almost scripted. Yuri Gagarin said as much in an interview he gave toPravda weeks after the crash. He sharply criticized the officials who had let his friend fly.

Komarov was honored with a state funeral. Only a chipped heel bone survived the crash. Three weeks later, Yuri Gagarin went to see his KGB friend. He wanted to talk about what happened. As the book describes it:

Gagarin met Russayev at his family apartment but refused to speak in any of the rooms because he was worried about bugs. The lifts and lobby areas were not safe, either, so the two men trudged up and down the apartment block's echoing stairwells.
The Gagarin of 1967 was very different from the carefree young man of 1961. Komarov's death had placed an enormous burden of guilt on his shoulders. At one point Gagarin said, "I must go to see the main man [Brezhnev] personally." He was profoundly depressed that he hadn't been able to persuade Brezhnev to cancel Komarov's launch.
Shortly before Gagarin left, the intensity of his anger became obvious. "I'll get through to him [Brezhnev] somehow, and if I ever find out he knew about the situation and still let everything happen, then I know exactly what I'm going to do." Russayev goes on, "I don't know exactly what Yuri had in mind. Maybe a good punch in the face." Russayev warned Gagarin to be cautious as far as Brezhnev was concerned. "I told him, 'Talk to me first before you do anything. I warn you, be very careful.' "

The authors then mention a rumor, never proven (and to my mind, most unlikely), that one day Gagarin did have a moment with Brezhnev and he threw a drink in Brezhnev's face.

I hope so.

Yuri Gagarin died in a plane accident in 1968, a year before the Americans reached the moon.
_________________________________

A Cosmonaut's Fiery Death Retold
by 

Last month, I read a book that recounted the horrendous death in 1967 of Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. The story amazed me. I described it this way:

"So there's a cosmonaut up in space, circling the globe, convinced he will never make it back to Earth; he's on the phone with Alexei Kosygin — then a high official of the Soviet Union — who is crying because he, too, thinks the cosmonaut will die. The space vehicle is shoddily constructed, running dangerously low on fuel; its parachutes — though no one knows this — won't work and the cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, is about to, literally, crash full speed into Earth, his body turning molten on impact. As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, 'cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.'"


Portrait of Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov
That's roughly the story I read in Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, a new edition of which was released last month in the United States. In my post, I said, "This version (of Komarov's death) — if it's true — is beyond shocking."

Well, after my post, a bunch of space historians wrote in to say that, in their view, many of the details in this book were either questionable or simply not true. So I invited some of them to send me their objections, which I shared with the authors, and I can now report that everybody agrees the story told in this book needs some revising. Parts of it hold true. Other parts remain in dispute. Some details, the authors freely concede, may be wrong. "Our book," Piers Bizony wrote recently in Space News, "no doubt contains mistakes, and we genuinely welcome corrections of factual errors."

So I'm going to repeat and then amend their riveting story. I'll do it in short chapters, this time with footnotes. It's still a doozie, but not quite the doozie they tell in their uncorrected, republished book. 


Gagarin (left) and Komarov out hunting
Chapter 1: The Friendship

What the book said: We begin with a friendship: Yuri Gagarin, the first human to go into space, apparently had a warm relationship with another cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov. In 1967, Komarov was scheduled to orbit the Earth in the first manned flight of a Soyuz space ship. Gagarin was listed as the backup pilot. If Komarov couldn't go, Gagarin would.
What we've learned: Critics say the Kremlin was not about to risk Gagarin's life in space. He was, at that point, a national treasure, too important to risk in space flight. So he was "backup" in name only.

Chapter 2: Mortal Danger

What the book said: There was a big problem with this space mission: The Soyuz was not ready to fly. Yuri Gagarin, working with a group of engineers, found 203 structural problems — serious defects that would make the Soyuz dangerous to navigate in space. They recommended postponement. But their memo was ignored.
What we've learned: Critics aren't sure this "memo" exists. It's not mentioned in memoirs or official accounts. Spaceman's authors say in Russia, many things aren't mentioned in print. They have sources.

Chapter 3: Can't Let Gagarin Die
What the book said: The Soyuz was so unsafe, Cosmonaut Komarov expected to die. "I'm not going to make it back from this flight," he told a KGB agent, Venyamin Russayev. Russayev is one of the most important sources in Doran and Bizony's book. "If you're so convinced you're going to die," he asked Komarov, "then why don't you refuse the mission?"
Komarov answered, "If I don't make this flight they'll send the backup pilot instead. That's Yura (Gagarin), and he'll die instead of me. We've got to take care of him." And then he burst into tears, or as Russayev puts it in a BBC interview broadcast in 1997: "He cracked. Maybe he just let out all the tension, and he began to cry."
What we've learned: Critics wonder about Venyamin Russayev. He was, they say, one of several KGB agents assigned to "mind" Yuri Gagarin. There is no way to check his very personal accounts of conversations he says he had. Doran and Bizony stand by him. "Russayev told us a story that was entirely credible," says Piers Bizony. "We regarded him as a decent and reliable source." One reason they trust him, Bizony wrote me, is that "we were directed towards him by someone impeccably close to Gagarin, whom I cannot name." Others think he's a blowhard who exaggerated to become part of space history.

Chapter 4: Can't Let Komarov Die

What the book said: Gagarin was just as anxious to save Komarov. On launch day, April 23, 1967, he showed up at the launch site and demanded to be put into a spacesuit, though no one was expecting him to fly. A Soviet journalist who was there, Yaroslav Golovanov, called this behavior "a sudden caprice." Was Gagarin trying to muscle onto the flight to save his friend?
What we've learned: Critics say this never happened. Gagarin would never demand a sophisticated "space suit" for a mission that didn't require him to walk in space, says historian Asif Siddiqi. The authors agree that the behavior was odd, but they have an eyewitness. In the BBC broadcast, Pravda journalist Golovanov says that Gagarin "demanded to be put into the protective spacesuit" and raised a fuss, "demanding this and this and this..." Was Gagarin trying to postpone the mission or sub for his friend? Golovanov doesn't say. But KGB agent Russayev does. Russayev insists "that Gagarin was trying to elbow his way onto the flight in order to save Komarov from almost certain death."

Chapter 5: Kosygin In Tears?


Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in 1967
What the book said: At a listening station near Istanbul, American intelligence was monitoring the Soyuz, and according to National Security Agency analyst Perry Fellwock, "They knew they had problems for about two hours before Komarov died and were fighting to correct them. We taped (the dialogue and) Kosygin called Komarov personally. They had a video-phone conversation, and Kosygin was crying. He told him he was a hero. ... They guy's wife got on, too, and they talked for a while. He told her how to handle their affairs and what to do with the kids. It was pretty awful."
What we've learned: My historians find no evidence that Kosygin talked to Komarov in the Soyuz; there's no mention of it in the official ship-to-ground transcripts. Starman's authors seem to be backing away from this crying-on-the-phone scene and from its source, NSA agent Fellwock. "In retrospect, I wish we had downplayed Fellwock's quotations a little more," says Piers Bizony.

Chapter 6: Komarov Dies Cursing 'This Devil Ship!' Or Did He?

What the book said: Komarov was furious as he died. "This devil ship! Nothing I lay my hands on works properly," he's quoted as saying. And as he descended to Earth, the book says:
"Komarov knew he was in terrible trouble. The [U.S.] radio outposts in Turkey intercepted his cries of rage and frustration as he plunged to his death, cursing forever the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship — although his 'final screams,' mentioned later in Fellwock's account, may be an exaggeration."
What we've learned: American historian Asif Siddiqi has a transcript of Komarov's final moments in the Soyuz. He got it from the Russian State Archive. It goes like this:

Komarov: Activated, activated, don't worry, everything is in order.
Ground: Understood, we're also not worried. How do you feel, how's everything? Zarya, over.
Komarov: I feel excellent, everything's in order.
Ground: Understood, our comrades here recommend that you take a deep breath. We're waiting for the landing. This is Zarya, over.
Komarov: Thank you for transmitting all of that. [Separation] occurred. [garbled]
Ground: Rubin, this is Zarya. Understood, separation occurred. Let's work during the break [pause]. Rubin, this is Zarya, how do you hear me? Over. Rubin, this is Zarya, how do you hear me? Over. This is Zarya, how do you hear me? Over ...

Valentina Komarov, the widow of Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, kisses a photograph of her dead husband during his official funeral, held in Moscow's Red Square on April 26, 1967.
Both accounts say that the real cause of death was the failure of the ship's parachutes to open. The Soyuz reentered the atmosphere safely, but the descent was a catastrophe. I asked Siddiqi if he thought his transcript had been doctored. He said, "I'm 100 percent confident the transcripts are genuine," though there may be other recordings from other tracking locations.When I showed it to Bizony, he said, "An official Soviet transcript of anything, from the death of a cosmonaut to the birth of a healthy baby boy, isn't worth the paper it's written on. ... Given that we at least broadly trust Russayev's recollection of events, we are entitled to believe that Komarov, for all his discipline as a cosmonaut, would have been entitled to some spitting madness and frustration."

Chapter 7: Gagarin Is Haunted

What the book said: Three weeks after the crash that killed Komarov, Yuri Gagarin met Russayev at his family apartment but refused to speak in any of the rooms because he was worried about bugs. The lifts and lobby areas were not safe, either, so the two men trudged up and down the apartment block's echoing stairwells. According to the book, at one point Gagarin said:
"I must go to see the main man [Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union] personally. ... I'll get through to him somehow, and if I ever find out he knew about the situation and still let everything happen, then I know exactly what I'm going to do." Russayev says, "I don't know exactly what Yuri had in mind. Maybe a good punch in the face." Russayev warned Gagarin to be cautious as far as Brezhnev was concerned. "I told him, 'Talk to me first before you do anything. I warn you, be very careful.'"
What we've learned: Critics agree that Gagarin suffered after Komarov died. But, once again, no one heard this conversation except Venyamin Russayev. If you believe Russayev, you can believe this happened. If not ... who knows?

What Really Happened in 1967?

We know Komarov died. We know the Soyuz crashed. We know a good friendship was interrupted. We know Yuri Gagarin was angry. But because this is a Soviet story, there is so much we don't know. "There are still deep secrets in Moscow archives that we are not allowed to see that could knock our socks off," writes James Oberg, one of America's most important space historians. He just reviewed Starman and he liked the book. "The authors bring up some new material from recently published memoirs from people who have yet to be accepted by space historians (including myself), and perhaps that reluctance is prudent — time will tell," he says.

Or perhaps time won't tell. Sometimes — and I imagine with Soviet history this happens more than sometimes — you can dig and dig, and in the end, you still don't know what really happened.


Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony's book is Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin (Walker Publishing 2011); Yaroslav Golovanov's interview with Yuri Gagarin was published in Komsomolskaya, Pravda, June 11, 1989. Venyamin Russayev's stories about Gagarin and Komarov appeared in 2006 in Literaturnaya Gazeta and were republished on several websites.

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