Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov was a Soviet test pilot, aerospace engineer, and cosmonaut. He died in a crash when the main parachute of his Soyuz 1 failed to open. But did you know why he had an open casket at his funeral?
Vladimir Komarov, the first Soviet space fatality, requested that his remains be displayed in an open casket upon his death. This was the cosmonaut’s way of sending a message to the government of the doomed mission he was assigned to.
The Soyuz Program
During the space race, the Russians took advantage of putting the first man in space, but the Americans were catching up fairly quickly. Their Gemini program can launch two people in space at one time. The Russians, who wanted to outdo the Gemini program, decided that it would put three men in space simultaneously.
This led to the improvement of the existing Voskhod program. The Voskhod was a modified Vostok where it was designed to fit three cosmonauts in the cockpit previously designed for only one. The Voskhod was a provisional vehicle until the Soyuz was ready for flight.
The Soyuz, which was the direct response of the Russians to the American Apollo, has been in development for quite some time already. It was designed to be a complex shuttle with long flights and docking capabilities. With a big ambition for the Soyuz came many delays. Two years have passed since the last Russian was sent to outer space because of this.
Despite having hundreds of design issues, and as the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution is fast approaching, the administration put on mounting pressure on the Soyuz program to conduct a flight. The government wanted a successful crewed flight at any cost, despite earlier unmanned Soyuz flights, with codenames Cosmos 133 and 140, showing that the shuttle was far from achieving success.
After reviews of the failed unmanned flights, the government felt that the Soyuz-1 would be successful. With this in mind, Russia adopted a very bold mission plan to catch the interest of the world. It decided that in addition to the Soyuz-1 mission, it would launch a second shuttle, the Soyuz-2, the next day.
Soyuz-2 was meant to carry three cosmonauts, and its mission was to perform the first docking of shuttles in outer space. Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov would man Soyuz-1 while Soyuz-2 would be transporting Alexei Yeliseyev, Yevgeni Khrunov, and Valeri Bykovsky.
Yeliseyev and Khrunov would then spacewalk from Soyuz-2 to Soyuz-1 and return to Earth with Komarov. The mission would be a failure due to developmental issues as well as conflicts in personality between the two top leaders of the program, chief designer Vasily Mishin and head of the cosmonaut corps General Nikolai Petrovich Kamanin. (Source: Space Safety Magazine)
On April 23, 1967, Soyuz-1 took off into the Earth’s orbit. Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov manned it. As soon as the shuttle reached Earth’s orbit, one of the two solar panels failed to deploy. Soon, many failures were reported by Komarov, from telemetry and sensor systems to orientation and propulsion systems.
Due to Komarov’s extensive training as a cosmonaut, he was able to overcome the chain of failures he encountered onboard the Soyuz-1. He was set to return safely but unfortunately, other technical issues occurred. The parachutes failed to open, sending Komarov to his death at 144 kilometers per hour. To add to that, the retrorockets only activated when the ship crashed, igniting the remainder of the fuel and melting down the entire ship, with Komarov in it.
As the events were happening, the US National Security Agency was quietly listening to what was transpiring. They reported that Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin told Komarov he was a hero while crying, and Komarov even spoke to his wife.
The last audio recorded before the crash was Komarov in a fit of rage, claiming that the ship’s engineers killed him. Many speculations also claimed that before Komarov died, he ordered his remains be displayed in an open casket to send a message to the Soviet government that they put him in a botched mission. (Source: Openmind BBVA)