What really happened to cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died crashing to Earth in 1967?

One of the most horrific and mysterious deaths in space is that of USSR cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, a close friend of Yuri Gagarin. Some historians say Komarov was sent to space in a craft that officials knew could never return.

Last month, NPR's Robert Krulwich reported on a theory about how Komarov was set up for doom:

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."

This account came from a book about the cosmonaut program called Starman, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony. Krulwich says the authors found new evidence, from KGB insider Venyamin Russayev, that Gagarin learned before his friend's flight that the vehicle he'd be flying in was in poor repair. Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo urging Soviet officials to stop the flight, but everyone who saw the memo allegedly disappeared or died. What really happened?

The tragedy

In his original post, Krulwich wrote:

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.

What really happened to cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died crashing to Earth in 1967? 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."

Doran and Bizony, in Starman, say that Gagarin paid several visits to his KGB contact Russayev after Komarov's death:

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 controversy

Krulwich, who first reported the story from Doran and Bizony's book on the NPR website, says that he's since learned that the authors may not have met with Russayev, who had supposedly provided them with a moving account of Gagarin's attempts to save Komarov's life. Certainly the alleged KGB agent's version of the story contradicts official Russian versions, but it also contradicts more objective historical accounts too.

Fordham University space historian Asif Siddiqi said that most of the alleged facts recorded in Starman had been debunked, and wrote in response to Kruwich's post:

1. Leonid Brezhnev didn't "decide to stage a spectacular midspace rendezvous." The plan for this mission dated back to 1965 and was formulated by engineers. It had nothing to do with Brezhnev.
2. There was never a plan to have Komarov crawl from one ship to another. That's just not true.
3. Yaroslav Golovanov (the Pravda correspondent supposedly credited for some of this information) never wrote that "Gagarin demanded to be put into a spacesuit" so that he could fly the mission. I think Golovanov (who died in 2003) would be spinning in his grave if he knew that he was quoted as such.
4. Komarov never told ground control that "he knew he was about to die." In fact, while he was in orbit, there was a decent chance that he would get back home alive. And by the way, there was no "video phone" in 1967. And also, Kosygin had nothing to do with this space mission and never spoke to Komarov.

He doesn't address the question of Gagarin's alleged 10-page memo, but he does make it clear that the facts around Komarov's death screams are suspicious.

What really happened to cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died crashing to Earth in 1967?

Another space historian, Robert Pearlman, says that Russayev is also a suspicious informant. On Life's Little Mysteries, he says:

All the new information comes from this new previously unknown KGB former agent and 'friend' of Gagarin, and has not been verified by anyone yet. Part of the problem is we don't know how reliable of a source this person is. No one has heard of him until now, and while that in itself shouldn't automatically rule him out as a source for historians, it does require the authors to verify his history and share that with readers.

So what really happened? Was there a setup that sent Komarov to his death, all because USSR officials wanted to do something awesome for the 50th anniversary of communist rule? That would certainly make conspiracy theorists happy, especially because for many years there have been suspicions about Gagarin's plane crash in 1969, two years after Komarov's death.

We may never know, but that doesn't make Komarov any less of a hero.