Friday, March 16, 2007

More Things in Heaven and Earth ...

Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first person to die during a space mission, was born on this day in 1927.

The dashing air force pilot Komarov joined the Soviet cosmonaut group in August 1961. In October 1964, Komarov was the commander of the first Voskhod mission, in which he, Konstantin Feoktistov and Boris Yegorov became the first people to enter space in a multi-manned spacecraft. The three, who did not wear space suits because there wasn't any room in the hastily refurbished craft, remained in orbit around the Earth for just over a day.

The mission was reportedly to have lasted longer, but Soviet politics seems to have intervened: when Voskhod I was launched, Nikita Khrushchev was the leader of the Soviet Union; when it returned, Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Kosygin had succeeded him following a bloodless coup. The first public appearance of the two new leaders was at the ceremony celebrating the return of Komarov and the other cosmonauts to Moscow. Legend has it that Komarov protested when asked to return early from orbit, only to be told by ground control, quoting from Shakespeare in a veiled reference to Khrushchev's fall, that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Three years later, the Soviets abandoned the Voskhod project in favor of the Soyuz, a spacecraft designed for long-distance flight and possible use in a Soviet manned lunar program, and Komarov was chosen to fly solo in the first Soyuz mission. On April 23, 1967, after a brief test orbit, Komarov died after his spacecraft tangled in its parachute during re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. One report revealed that the Soviets had experienced serious failures in the re-entry phase during the four unmanned Soyuz tests made before Komarov's flight. Given the track record, Komarov's last flight must be viewed as an extraordinarily courageous gamble.

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