Posted by: Catherine Lugg | March 18, 2011

Revisiting a tragedy from the “Space Race.”

Today, on National Public Radio, reporter Robert Krulwich revisits the first death of a Soviet Cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov. It is a harrowing tale.

…here’s a cosmonaut up in space, circling the globe, convinced he will never make it back to Earth; he’s on the phone with Alexsei 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.”

It is a tale of national pride gone badly astray, where a brave man’s life was sacrificed because of willful bureaucratic blindness. Like the US a few scant months before with the fire in Apollo 1, the Soviets assumed that since they had the superior political system, their science was perfect. Such smug nationalist notions typically lead to much sadness.

But unlike more the more dainty US sensibilities, the Soviets did display the costs of such bravery in the face of incompetent political leadership. Komarov’s casket was open. Too often, Americans are shielded from the true costs of governmental folly. We do need to see the harm inflicted on human beings. For if we see it, we must then stop it.



  1. Is this picture for real? If so, it’s a repulsive – but true – scene. An award-winning photo of an incredible sight.

  2. Jennifer,

    Yes, this is for real. Komarov’s casket was open for the funeral. While this is conjecture on my part, it was a way of shaming Brezhnev, who was insistent that the launch proceed. Supposedly, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin threw his drink in Brezhnev’s face over Komarov’s death. I’m not sure that is a true story, but I love the sentiment.

  3. […] space, has me positively unhinged. Think about it. She was more worried about being a public queer than being roasted alive either after launch–see Challenger disaster, or coming down from space–see Columbia […]

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