The post-mortems were conducted in the Burdenko Military Hospital in Moscow by 17 physicians. All three cosmonauts had suffered brain haemorrhages, subcutaneous bleeding, damaged ear-drums and bleeding of the middle ear. Nitrogen was absent from the blood; it, together with oxygen and carbon dioxide, had boiled and reached the heart and brain in the form of bubbles. The formation of gas in the blood was a symptom of rapid depressurisation. The blood of all three men contained enormous amounts of lactic acid, fully ten times the norm, which was an indication of terrible emotional stress and anoxia.

On Thursday, 1 July, the bodies of the cosmonauts were delivered to the Central House of the Soviet Army on Spaskiy Street, where they were laid in open coffins on a catafalque with sombre drapes and multicoloured military banners. Garlands and wreaths were arranged around the coffins. Dobrovolskiy was the nearest to the entrance, Volkov was in the middle and Patsayev was furthest. All three had been dressed in dark civilian suits and bore on their chests Gold Stars to signify that they were Heroes of the Soviet Union. Dobrovolskiy and Patsayev had been awarded the nation’s top honour posthumously, and Volkov, who had already received one after his first space flight in 1969, gained a second star.

The only one to display any sign of an injury was Patsayev, who had a dark mark similar to a bruise covering most of his right cheek. Dobrovolskiy and Volkov were said by journalists to look uninjured. But for General Kamanin, who was himself in a state of deep shock, only Volkov looked “as alive’’; the faces of Dobrovolskiy and Patsayev were “almost unrecognisable”.

Cosmonauts (right to left) Kubasov, Filipchenko, Gorbatko and Teryeshkova form a guard of honour for their fallen colleagues.

In the eight hours in which the cosmonauts were on display, tens of thousands of people filed past to pay their respects. Among them were the First Secretary of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnyev, Premier Aleksey Kosygin, President Nikolay Podgorny, members of the Politburo, senior members of the military, academicians, spacecraft designers and cosmonauts, and foreign leaders and ambassadors. The three-man military guard of honour was exchanged every three minutes. For a time they were joined by members of the cosmonaut corps.

The family mourners were in the front part of the room: Lyudmila Dobrovolskiy with daughters Marina (12) and Nataliya (4); Lyudmila Volkova with son Vladimir (13); and Vera Patsayeva with son Dmitriy (14) and daughter Svetlana (9). With them stood Valentina Teryeshkova, who been the person who informed them of the tragedy. Behind, in black suits, were the cosmonauts’ parents: Mariya and Timofey Dobrovolskiy, Olga and Nikolay Volkov, and Mariya Patsayeva, together with their siblings. After several minutes spent standing in silent tribute, Brezhnyev and his colleagues went to the families to express their personal condolences. At one point, Brezhnyev covered his face with his hand and started to cry.

An emotional farewell to the Soyuz 11 crew. Top: Patsayev (left), Volkov (centre) and Dobrovolskiy (right) lie in state in the Central House of the Soviet Army. Middle: Party and government leaders form a guard of honour. Bottom left: Cosmonaut Teryeshkova presents Brezhnyev and Kosygin to the mourners. Bottom centre: Brezhnyev covers his face in grief. Bottom right: Of the three cosmonauts, only Patsayev showed any visible sign of injury, in the form of a dark mark covering most of his right cheek.

At 10 p. m. the Central Army House was closed to the public. At 1 a. m. on 2 July the bodies were cremated. At 10 a. m. the urns containing the ashes were returned to the hall, and for two hours the room was reopened to the public.

Shortly before noon, the American astronaut Colonel Thomas P. Stafford arrived in Moscow to attend the funeral as President Nixon’s representative. He flew there from Belgrade, where, with cosmonaut Pavel Popovich, he had been attending an exhibition entitled Space for Peace. “Before I reached Belgrade, I heard the news that the Soyuz 11 crew had died on their return to Earth. My first worry was that the stress of a long-duration flight had killed them, and I wondered what it would mean to our Skylab crews.’’ The call from the American embassy in Belgrade to urgently pack his bags and travel to Moscow came as a surprise. When Komarov was killed in 1967 Washington had asked to send astronauts Alan Shepard and Frank Borman to the funeral, but the request had been refused. On landing in Moscow Stafford rode with cosmonaut Beregovoy, his host, to the Central Army House, where he paid his respects. While there, he was introduced to Aleksey Leonov, unaware that Leonov was the original commander for the Soyuz 11 mission.[102]

Colonel Popovich had also returned to attend the funeral. He had hastily called the Space for Peace organiser to explain why he must curtail his visit: “The guys have died! This weightlessness will kill all of us.’’

At noon the Central Army House was closed to the public, in order to enable the family mourners, close friends and members of the cosmonaut corps to prepare for the procession to Red Square. Each urn was decorated with a large looped garland and mounted on a rectangular metal cradle that had two long carrying handles. The urns were taken to individual carriages that were drawn by armoured cars. The pallbearers for Dobrovolskiy’s urn included Leonov, Shatalov, Nikolayev and Stafford.

As the cortege made its way slowly to Red Square with the carriages side by side, military officers walked ahead, some with portraits of Dobrovolskiy, Volkov and Patsayev and others carrying cushions bearing their decorations. A guard of honour marched alongside. And Brezhnyev, Kosygin, Podgorny, members of the Politburo and the government, friends, relatives and other cosmonauts followed behind with the mourners. An accompanying military band played solemn music. The route had been closed to normal traffic. Despite the hot and humid day, hundreds of thousands of people stood in line. Buildings along the route flew their flags at half-mast and displayed black-framed pictures of the dead cosmonauts.

As the procession turned into the cobbled Red Square, thousands of people stood behind barricades around its periphery to observe the final farewell in front of the Lenin Mausoleum. The party on the reviewing platform included national leaders and senior military officers.

The main speech was read by Andrey Kirilenko, a member of the Politburo and head of the State Funeral Commission which was formed on the day of the tragedy, whose membership included Ustinov, Smirnov, Afanasyev, Keldysh and Shatalov.

Pallbearers carry the urn with Dobrovolskiy’s ashes. On the near side are Leonov and Stafford. Cosmonauts Nikolayev and Popovich are partially visible behind Stafford. On the opposite side, are Kirilenko and Shatalov. (Courtesy NASA)

Members of the public join the funeral procession in Moscow’s Red Square.

Chertok and Semyonov among the mourners in Red Square. (From the book Rocket and People, Book No 4, courtesy www. astronaut. ru)

“They died at their post, as heroes die”. The urns with the cosmonauts’ ashes during the final part of the funeral.

In addition, he was the coordinator of the special commission created to investigate why the cosmonauts had died.

“Together with the entire Soviet people and our friends abroad,’’ Kirilenko began, “the Central Committee of the Party, the Presidium of the USSR, and the Soviet government deeply mourn the loss that befell our country. . . . To the last second of their lives Georgiy Dobrovolskiy, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev stayed at the controls of their ship. They died at their post – as heroes die. They were full of vigour, fully confident of fulfilling the assignment from the Party and the people. And they fulfilled that assignment. The results of their observations are

The final farewell was in front of the Lenin Mausoleum.

priceless for science, for the future of cosmonautics, for mankind. … It wasn’t idle curiosity that drew them into space, but the need to unravel more and more of the mysteries of the universe for the good of men. We will continue this difficult but necessary work.’’

Mstislav Keldysh, the head of the Academy of Sciences, was the second orator. He agreed that the Soyuz 11 mission had been a major step in the development of Soviet cosmonautics: “The Salyut-Soyuz 11 flight heralds the start of a new stage in exploring outer space, namely using long-term orbital stations in near-Earth orbits.’’

Generals Nikolayev and Shatalov represented the cosmonaut corps. Shatalov read an open letter written by their colleagues: “We know that our road is a difficult and thorny one but we do not doubt the correctness of our choice, and are always ready for the most difficult flight. . . . We express our firm confidence that what occurred must not halt ongoing development and perfection of space engineering and man’s striving for space. . . . Today, we pay a final tribute to our talented and courageous comrades, but there is not just grief in our hearts, there is also pride in what they did for their country in space.’’

Finally the urns were taken behind the Lenin Mausoleum to the Kremlin’s wall, to be interred alongside those bearing the ashes of cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuriy Gagarin. As the urns were inserted into their niches, cannons fired in salute. Each niche was sealed with a black plate that bore the name of the cosmonaut and the dates of his birth and death. Their photographs and decorations were placed on pedestals alongside, and the families and friends moved in to pay their final respects.

The whole world shared the grief. The Soviet newspapers were full of tributes and messages of condolence from foreign leaders. Among many who sent messages of sympathy to the Soviet people were Queen Elizabeth II, the Pope, Presidents Nixon and Pompidou and Premiers Chou En-lai and Indira Gandhi.

In a letter to Podgorny the Queen wrote: “My husband and I were shocked to hear of the deaths of your three cosmonauts. We extend our sincerest sympathy to you and to the Soviet people on the occasion of the sad loss of these intrepid men.’’

On behalf of the United States, President Nixon wrote to the Soviet leaders: “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 loss. But the achievements of cosmonauts Dobrovolskiy, Volkov and Patsayev remain. It will, I am certain, prove to have contributed greatly to the further achievements of the Soviet programme for the exploration of space and thus to the widening of man’s horizons.’’

President Pompidou wrote: “All Frenchmen, like me, admired their extraordinary exploits.’’

In the Vatican, Pope Paul interrupted a general audience to announce the deaths. He expressed sadness for “this unexpected and tragic epilogue’’, and offered prayers to the families of the three men.

The Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai sent a telegram to express sympathy to the Soviet people for their “deep grief” over the deaths of the cosmonauts, and to “convey heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families’’.

Brezhnyev and Kirilenko help to carry Dobrovolskiy’s urn to its final resting place in the wall of the Kremlin.

The ashes of the three cosmonauts have been interred in the wall of the Kremlin.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said that the three men had “died as heroes on behalf of science. Their achievement in the exploration of space [was a major] contribution to progress.’’

In the wake of the successful Apollo 11 lunar landing, NASA and the Soviets had begun to consider the possibility of a joint manned space mission. In January 1971 George Low, NASA’s Deputy Director, had led a group of specialists on a visit to Moscow to explore the options, and they met several cosmonauts. Low now sent a letter of condolence.

Valentina Teryeshkova comforts Dobrovolskiy’s daughter Marina at the wall of the Kremlin. Dobrovolskiy’s mother Mariya stands in the background together with cosmonauts Feoktistov (with glasses) and Gorbatko. (Courtesy Peter Pesavento)

Patsayev’s family (left to right): daughter Svetlana, wife Vera and son Dmitriy. Behind is Viktor’s mother Mariya. (Copyright Svetlana Patsayeva)

The popular writer Konstantin Simonov wrote in Pravda: “Warriors know that the most difficult aspect of a reconnaissance mission is to return across the front line to one’s own position. The front line in space reconnaissance, in the struggle to reveal the mysteries of nature, is re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere; the final step before landing. It was precisely at this final step that the crew of the Salyut orbital station perished.’’

Mikhail Rebrov, a special correspondent of the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, and a close friend of many of the cosmonauts, summed up to the overwhelming feeling at this tragic, yet triumphant, moment in the history of the Soviet space programme: “We know the road to space is difficult and dangerous. But once having embarked upon this road we must continue, for no difficulty or obstacle can turn a man away from his chosen path. The cosmonauts have told us: ‘As long as our hearts beat, we will continue to explore the universe.’ Wonderful and brave people are now dead. Their names will illuminate the arduous road into outer space like stars.’’

Kenneth Gatland, vice-president of the British Interplanetary Society, wrote: ‘‘The entire space community today mourns the three space heroes whose ashes are being buried in the wall of the Kremlin. Before the tragedy that befell them, they opened a new era of space conquest by occupying the world’s first space station. Their epic flight will stand as a landmark in space history.’’

The writer and broadcaster Patrick Moore said: ‘‘Certainly, the uppermost thought in my mind is sadness at the deaths of these three brave men. They will never be forgotten. Unfortunately, nothing can bring them back, but the sympathy of the whole world will go out to their relatives, to their countless friends, and to all the people of the USSR.’’

One of the last sites to record the three cosmonauts alive was the amateur satellite tracking station at Kettering Grammar School in England. Its leader, Geoffrey Perry, said that they received signals from Soyuz 11 as it was passing 200 km above the island of Madeira in the Atlantic, off the northwest coast of Africa. ‘‘At that time we were certain that all three men were still living. After you have been listening to three men’s heartbeats for 24 days, it is difficult to put into words your feelings on discovering that they are dead. We are all very upset.’’

The leaders of the Soviet space programme were quick to reaffirm that manned missions would continue.

Writing in Pravda on 4 July Academician Boris Petrov, who was the chairman of the Interkosmos Council, spoke of the conquest of space as a ‘‘difficult path’’, then repeated Brezhnyev’s statement, made prior to the launch of Salyut: ‘‘Soviet science considers the creation of orbital stations with replacement crews to be the highway to space.’’ Petrov argued that platforms in ‘‘near-Earth space’’ would enable man to make comprehensive studies of the Earth and of astronomy. He said that ‘‘the 1970s will see the development and application of long-term manned orbital stations with replacement crews, making it possible to switch from occasional brief experiments in space to regular work by scientists and specialists in space laboratories.’’ He went on: ‘‘The experience of the Soyuz 11 crew has shown that the Salyut station is well designed for experiments in orbital flight conditions. Such stations offer broad prospects for the continuation and development of the research that was undertaken

by the first Salyut crew…. In due course larger and more complex multipurpose and specialised space stations will be built. But the significance of the work carried out by the first crew of the first manned orbital station … will never fade.” Speaking of the tragedy, he said: “Soyuz ships have already made several space flights, and have safely returned cosmonauts to Earth. When such complex machinery is being tested and mastered, accidents can never be ruled out.”

The disaster overshadowed the Congress of Soviet Writers’ hosted by the Kremlin, where the famous poet Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read a memorial poem:

Two-way Link for Ever

In Kamchatka and in Arbat,

Above the Angara rapids
The sorrowful expiration: guys have perished,

As the requiem above the country

None – no matter how it was crowned –
Will not return to its house finally
To three hearts, large, human
It became less in Russia hearts.

And what heavy burden,

For the people, to whom they were
Simple Vitya and simple Gosha,

And simple Slava – during the recent days.[103]

O, Matrosovs[104] of the cosmodromes!

You left to us your regulations:

Even in space – by vein without having trembled,

To die at the work sites.

As much there are still difficulties
In the sky to be yielded!

And thus far humanity exists
The flame of future spaceships
Will be the eternal fire in your honour

You are as immortal as the cry:

“We have ignition!”

And it’s not true that contact has been lost:

Between you and our native land
There is two-way link for ever.


As soon as TASS made the announcement that the Soyuz 11 crew had been found dead in their couches, people all around the world began to consider whether their deaths were due to a technical fault or were the result of a fundamental limitation of the human body.

One of the prevailing theories was that man might not be able to survive for long periods in weightlessness. For several years there had been a serious debate among scientists about the effects of long-term exposure to weightlessness. In 1965 one of NASA’s Gemini missions had spent 14 days in orbit in order to demonstrate that it was possible to remain in space for the length of time required to fly a lunar landing mission. However, there were indications that the heart grew lazy when exposed to weightlessness. In July 1969 the monkey Bonny died of heart failure after the 9-day flight of NASA’s Biosatellite 3. After the 18-day flight of Andriyan Nikolayev and Vitaliy Sevastyanov on Soyuz 9 in 1970 the Soviets had discovered the debilitating effects of weightlessness: the loss of body fluids, the loss of calcium from the bones and the loss of muscle tone, including the heart. It had taken more than a week for them to readapt to gravity. Perhaps, it was suggested, the Soyuz 11 mission, having lasted six days longer than the previous record, had exceeded man’s limits in space. Medical experts admitted that weightlessness could have played a part in the deaths, but were sceptical that the hearts of three men having different physiologies could have failed simultaneously.

According to one source, the crew of Soyuz 11 complained to the TsUP that they were having breathing difficulties soon after undocking from Salyut, but were told that it was normal.[105]

Western experts in space medicine did not think that the deaths of the cosmonauts resulted from the time they spent in weightlessness. Dr. Charles A. Berry, the chief physician at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, said: “There is no evidence whatsoever from either our experience or that of the Russians in space, or from ground-based experiments, to suggest that weightlessness could have been responsible.” He thought that the accident may have been caused by the release of a toxic substance. Dr. Walton Jones, Deputy Director of Life Sciences at the NASA Office of Manned Space Flight, said that since the three men were found strapped in their couches, they likely died as a result of sudden decompression, such as would have occurred if a valve had leaked or if the cabin shell had ruptured or was struck and punctured by a meteoroid.

Within hours of the news of the loss of the crew, Kenneth Gatland of the British Interplanetary Society dismissed the effects of returning to Earth after such a long flight as the cause of death. There must have been a mechanical failure. But it was possible that after 24 days in space the cosmonauts were so tired that they had failed to verify all of the spacecraft’s systems, or when an emergency had developed they had been unable to react sufficiently rapidly.

NASA was relieved when the official report ruled out weightlessness and physical deconditioning as causes for the accident. The American space specialists felt sure that the Soyuz must have suffered a mechanical or structural failure. Because the crew were not in protective pressure suits, they could have died from any number of causes: excessive heat, carbon dioxide fumes from a small fire, a nitrogen leak from the spacecraft’s air-supply system, or a rapid drop in cabin pressure. Such theories were supported by unconfirmed reports that all radio transmissions – telemetry as well as voice – had ceased at the conclusion of the braking manoeuvre. In fact, most speculation centred on a failure in the oxygen supply. This was based largely on the rumour in Moscow that the cosmonauts had been found with serene expressions on the faces – such composure is characteristic of hypoxia, a starvation of oxygen that can produce a rapid and relatively painless death.

On learning of the difficulty in closing the hatch prior to undocking from Salyut, Western analysts theorised that if the hatch was insecure the mechanical stresses of re-entry could have made a minor leak into a disastrous one. But in September 1971 cosmonaut Dr. Boris Yegorov said that the disaster struck when the air leaked from the cabin during a period of several seconds as the orbital module was released. He insisted that the hatch was properly sealed, and said that suspicion had fallen on one of the valves used to equalise the pressures across the hatch.

The authorities had deemed the post-mortems sufficient to determine the cause of death, and had proceeded with the State funeral, but were waiting until they fully understood what had gone wrong before concluding the technical investigation.

Specific references

1. ‘They Made Accomplishment’. Politika, Belgrade, 2 July 1971 (in Serbian).

2. ‘Breathless clue to Soyuz space deaths’, The Sunday Times, 4 July 1971.

3. ‘Moscow to go ahead with plans for manned space stations despite Soyuz disaster’. The Times, 5 July 1971.

4. Stafford, Thomas P. with Cassutt, Michael, We Have Capture – Tom Stafford and the Space Race. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, pp. 154-156.

5. Kamanin, N. P., Hidden Space, Book 4. Novosti kosmonavtiki, 2001, pp. 333­338 (in Russian).

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>