In 1967, manned space flight was rocked by a pair of unexpected tragedies: the death of the three American astronauts onboard Apollo 1, during pre-launch testing of the spacecraft, and the death of the one Soviet cosmonaut aboard Soyuz 1, during a flawed attempt at re-entry. The twin failures of the first spacecraft in each country’s respective manned lunar program were shocking, and the Soviets never recovered.
Space travel has always been dangerous – and even more so in the early days of the 1960s, when most of the technology involved was still experimental and sometimes improvised, all held together by primitive and unreliable computer systems. Despite the risks, the first generation of astronauts, drawn mostly from the ranks of military test pilots, courageously attempted to reach the Moon.
Only the Americans made it – six times, between Apollo 11 and Apollo 17. In 1967, the first manned spacecraft in the Soviet Union’s intended “Moonshot” program, Soyuz 1, crashed on re-entry after its parachutes failed to deploy properly. The spacecraft was known to suffer from hundreds of technical flaws, but Communist Party politicians had demanded the launch be rushed anyway to keep pace with the Americans and also to mark the celebrations of Lenin’s birthday. Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, reportedly tried to take Vladimir Komarov’s place as pilot for the mission, gambling that the Politburo would be less willing to risk a national celebrity than a relative unknown like Komarov. Gagarin’s gambit failed. Komarov was forced to make an early re-entry after his spacecraft’s solar panel failed, and Soyuz 1 then plunged to its destruction after the parachutes failed, as well.
The early Soyuz program was marred by more than just Soyuz 1. In 1971, all three cosmonauts aboard another spacecraft in the series, Soyuz 11, died from exposure to vacuum after a valve was left open while they separated from the Soviet space station Salyut 1. The Soviet manned space program was in tatters. There would be no cosmonauts landing on the moon.
However, this was not the end of Soviet innovation in space. With funding and support for the manned program bleeding away, attention turned instead to the less attention-grabbing but technically equally impressive attempt at landing advanced unmanned space probes. In 1970, the first unmanned robotic spacecraft, Luna 16, touched down on the Moon, collected a soil sample, and brought it back to the Soviet landing zone in Kazakhstan, all flawlessly. Luna 16 was followed by a pair of Lunokhod unmanned lunar rovers, which performed missions somewhat similar to those NASA’s “rover” probes – Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity – did on Mars three decades later.
Overall, the failure of Soyuz 1 and the success of Luna 16 meant that the Russian space program conceded total defeat to the Americans with respect to manned spacecraft, but – at least for a time – maintained its unchallenged superiority in unmanned spaceflight.
The long-term consequences, however, could not have been anticipated at the time: both Soviet achievements, the Soyuz spacecraft and the unmanned robotic probe, would become unexpected standard features of international space travel. Today, unmanned probes are regarded as far cheaper than manned spacecraft, and at least for the moment can achieve most of the reconnaissance and basic scientific experiments that we want to perform, both on the Moon but also on Mars (and, hopefully soon, Venus).
Moreover, despite the initial pair of tragedies, the Soyuz program survived, limiting itself only to targets within Earth orbit. In that respect, the current generation of Soyuz spacecraft are the standard method of ferrying crews to the International Space Station. Although there have been some malfunctions and challenges, neither the Soviet nor the Russian space programs ever suffered another loss in space flight after the disasters aboard Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11. Today’s manned Soyuz spacecraft operate at a fraction of the cost of the American Space Shuttle, and are widely regarded as among the safest and most reliable manned spacecraft ever built.