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Soyuz 11 Mission: from a Success, to The Most Tragic of Endings for The Astronauts

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In this essay, I am going to be covering how the Soyuz 11 mission went from a success to the most tragic of endings for the three brave astronauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev on their fatal mission. In this essay, I will be covering some background history on the development of the mission, especially focusing on the safety measures that were implemented for the astronauts. I will also be discussing why these measures were not sufficient as well as why they failed on this mission and not previous ones as there where missions before Soyuz 11. As well as showing how this has affected future space missions for not only the Soyuz missions but every other space program. Another aspect to consider is the materials and engineering processes that where used to make the rocket for the Soyuz 11. This will indicate if they were appropriate for a mission in space undergoing extreme stresses.


For the essay, I will be covering one of the most famous accidents in the history of space travel as this led to the first three men to die in space and explain how this tragic event happened. In 1971, the Soyuz 11 mission consisted of sending a crew of three astronauts into space to reach the Salyut 1 space station. The Salyut 1 was built by the Soviet Union in and was the first space station ever. It was a response to the American’s achievement of landing on the moon. Salyut 1 was launched on the 19 of April 1971. As it was unmanned when it went up, a mere two days later Soyuz 10 went up with a crew of three with the intent of staying on the space station for 30 days to conduct experiments. Although they were able to reach and lock onto the station, a problem with the hatch kept them from being able to enter it. This led to them having to return home early and failing the mission. Interestingly on re-entry to earth, the Soyuz 10 air supply was contaminated and was therefore toxic, but this had no long-lasting effects on the astronauts as they all returned safely. Due to this failure of Soyuz 10, and the Soviet’s desperation not to have Salyut 1 unmanned, they launched Soyuz 11 on the 6 of June 1971. The mission started off well as the crew of Soyuz 11 successfully docked, entered into the space station, and became the first men in history to occupy a space station. The crew spent 23 days on the space station where they completed 383 orbits around the earth. They were able to complete more than 140 different experiments including radiation exposure measurements, observation of space, the moon and earth, and many more. The mission was meant to last a full 30 days but due to so issues with the space station, including an electrical fire, the mission was cut down to 23 days with the crew leaving on the 24th day. But in the early hours of 30th of June 1971, with the Soviet Union was ready to welcome their heroes back, as they saw that it had been a successful landing with the parachutes deployed. The shuttle was in good condition with no external damage on it so they were shocked to find the crew all dead inside.


The objective of the essay is to investigate what happened on the return flight of the Soyuz 11 to see what went wrong that lead it to all of the crew dying. Another objective is to find out what components in the space shuttle failed causing the deaths, as well as finding out whether the materials and processes used in making the rocket were suitable for this kind of mission into space. They also needed to have suitable tests and analyses to determine whether the shuttle could withstand re-entering the atmosphere. Another aspect to consider is how this could have been avoided by either using more advanced materials and processes to build the shuttle. As well as the effect their deaths had on the world and the space industry.


Firstly to determine how the astronauts died we must consider every aspect. From the reports at the time after they had tried to get a response from the crew they opened up the hatch, and they found all three men in their couches, motionless, with dark-blue patches on their faces and trails of blood from their noses and ears. They removed them from the descent module, which was a hard task to do considering the diameter of the match was 60cm. Dobrovolski was the only one still warm. The doctors gave artificial respiration as they thought that there might be some chance of reviving the body as it was still warm, but this had no effect of the outcome despite trying to revive all of the crew members of an hour despite there being no official reports of what the doctors did. Based on their reports, the cause of death was suffocation. With suffocation being one of the known causes of death, the Soviets decided to investigate what this meant for the crew and if there were other causes of death as well as suffocation. When investigating further some thought it might have been something to do with the air supply to the astronauts, as the air supply was a problem in Soyuz 10 with the air being contaminated for Soyuz 10 so they thought it might have been the same problem. The Soviets wanted another mission to Salyut 1 as soon as possible so the engineers and scientists did not have long to fix this problem fully but they did it to the best of their abilities. When the investigation progressed into the shuttle, with in-depth analysis it showed that the air supply was not to blame for the astronaut’s death. As the doctors and control center was dealing with this tragedy, they started to suspect that it was decompression that caused all of this which meant to the crew would have been exposed to the vacuum of space. This was first thought of when the control center received radio silences during most of the descent which they thought was down to the failure of the radio system but it might of actually been the crew being unresponsive. Once the bodies had been taken back for further investigation they found that the bodies had been dead for around 30 minutes but more worryingly they found that the crew had been exposed to the vacuum of space for 12 minutes proving that they were the first people to die in space. The last bit of evidence that was needed to confirm that it was the decompression that caused the deaths was the fact that all of the crew’s blood had been boiled, which only happens when a human body has been decompressed. The post-mortem, which was done by 17 physicians, showed that in total all three of the astronauts suffered brain hemorrhages, subcutaneous bleeding, damaged eardrums, and ear bleeding, as well with all the nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide being absent from their blood.

For the full-on research, they put together a team of 12 members who had all been commissioned by the state to solve the tragedy of Soyuz 11. They already knew that Soyuz 11 suffered no major problems during the whole mission as the crew where able to get up to and then connect with the space station so they knew that it must have been the descent module is where the problem occurred. When the researchers retrieved the black box from the descent module they saw that the mercury meter (the equipment they used to measure the pressure in the descent module) went from 915mm to 50mm in 115 seconds. This shows that depressurization happened at this time as there would have been no air in the descent module which would explain how the crew all suffocated because of the decompression of the descent module. When looking at the time of the drop in pressure, it was when the module was at an altitude of 150 kilometers which is the height that the modules separate from each other. As they had figured out when the decompression happened, they now had to find out what caused it which left them with two options. The first of them was the premature opening of one of the two values which are located at the top of the descent module and the second being that there was some leakage from the hatch that allowed the air to escape. They now had to determine which effect caused this so once again they turned to the black box to find anything that could help them. The method that the team used was to calculate a curve of pressure loss of one of the valve’s opening and then compared to the data from the black box in the module of the actual pressure loss that happened and found that the curves perfectly matched each other.

Now they knew what determined the decompression they now had to find out why only one of the valves opened. The idea of incorrect command or a circuit malfunction was instantly rejected as both of the valves were connected to the same electrical circuit so they do everything at the same time as each other so it would have meant both valves being open and not just one.

Doing further calculations with the fact that the valve radius was 2cm and the volume of air in the descent module they found that the air passing through the valve would have been at the speed of sound. With this rate of air loss, this would lead to the module pressure being near zero after only sixty seconds of the valve opening. With this being figured out there was a serious question to ask of why the crew was not wearing their spacesuits when in the descent module. Spacesuits work by surrounding the astronaut in a bubble of air so they would have a constant air supply plus they wouldn’t feel the effects of decompression if the descent module became compromised. Instead, the crew had been told to go into the module in a ‘shirt-sleeve environment’ and not their spacesuits. This went under serious investigation because if the crew had worn the spacesuits they would have been alive when they landed. It turned out that the decision for no spacesuits had been made years prior to Soyuz 11. In 1964 they ordered the designers of the modules for the space mission to make it so it could fit three astronauts in however when they finished it they found they couldn’t fit three people in with spacesuits so instead of designing and building a new one they just decided to make it that crew would travel in it in ‘shirt-sleeve environment’. Another major error that was made later on would be the decision not to put the install tanks full of air for all the crew so that if the module ever did experience decompression then the crew could survive. This decision for the tanks was backed up by the over 1,000 tests and there were no problems with decompression of the module so therefore it did not need the extra tanks.

To find why the valve opened the descent module was taken to Moscow for further investigation. They came up with the hypothesis that the valve inadvertently opened when the module split during the descent, even the though valves in the module had been tested rigorously multiple times with powerful shocks and high-intensity vibrations and the valves did not open. Even though initially they thought the hypothesis would not be true someone noticed that all of the tests had been done at normal atmospheric conditions. The importance of this is that it allows the forces that were produced to diffuse out (the valve configuration of the descent module) so it would be heavily reduced. This led to them conducting tests of the simulation of the descent module.

Separating, in an altitude chamber, when the conditions where at a vacuum state. They started the tests but after two tests the found that the valves did not open so they decided to test it with incorrectly configured valves. They did the tests again and they started to vary the load on the valves and found that the valves still worked and did not open, but when they simultaneously applied the entire load on the valve they found that it opened, this experiment had finally found the cause of why the valves opened and were officially accepted by all of the researchers. Later in the official commission statement, they used the results to explain how the valve had opened and was released to the world.


The report that was released stated that there was no failure of the structure for the descent module, which lead to the world, and especially Western observers, to conclude that it was the crews’ fault for their deaths. It would take two years for the Washington post to find out and tell the world that a valve inadvertently opened. This shows that the Russians where desperate to show the world that they did not make a mistake as it was the crew’s fault that they died and not for the inappropriate clothing and incomplete testing off the valves. Another important aspect that had to be changed was the ‘shirtsleeve environment’, which could have saved the crew. In response to this, they designed the Sokol spacesuit, which was first worn by astronauts in 1973 and was used for the next space mission, and is still used to this day. But it was still too large for the astronauts to wear in the Soyuz shuttle so it still has the ‘shirtsleeve environment’. The main cause of the valve and how it was sorted was the most important part of the investigation. The valves’ purpose was to for them both to open when the parachutes were roughly 5 kilometers above ground and let fresh air enter the cabin. For the valve, the testing for it was instantly improved so that it was inappropriate conditions for space and this led to a instant improvement of the valve and making sure it was in a correct alignment for future missions


From the analysis, it shows that the premature opening of the valve lead to the cabin of the descent module depressurizing, which lead to the whole crew dying due to being exposed to the vacuum of space. As well as the valve is the incorrect configuration for the mission. Also, the tests of the module and parts being an unsuitable condition for outer space. Another key factor was the ‘shirt-sleeve environment’ that crew where told to adopt when in the module was for me the key factor, as the crew would have survived the mission if they had worn the spacesuits they had, as the depressurization would not have affected them as the spacesuits would have protected them. After Soyuz 11 shocked the world about dangerous space, in the countries that had space missions I think they now fully understood that when the astronauts are in space there is no room for mistakes as the smallest things can have huge effects on the astronauts. It also led to the tests for my components and materials to be more rigorous and intense to make sure that nothing goes wrong. This especially shocked the Soviet Union as they regarded the crew as heroes and at the funeral, they had gold stars on their chests to show that they were heroes with tens of thousands filling the streets to pay their respects to families and the crew.

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Soyuz 11 Mission: From a Success, to the Most Tragic of Endings for the Astronauts. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 26, 2022, from
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Soyuz 11 Mission: From a Success, to the Most Tragic of Endings for the Astronauts. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 Jun. 2022].
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