At 1.45 a.m., almost seven minutes after finishing the braking manoeuvre, Soyuz 11 crossed the coast of Portugal. Shortly thereafter the automated system rotated it through 90 degrees in order to position the orbital module on top and the propulsion module facing down. At 1.47.28 a.m., while passing over France, twelve explosive
7 A further complication was that owing to the difficulty in achieving a hermetic seal of the hatch prior to undocking, the cosmonauts were initially 20 minutes behind the flight plan.
charges jettisoned the orbital module and six more jettisoned the propulsion module. Because the main radio transmission equipment was in the propulsion module, this terminated all signals from the descent module except those from the VHF antenna incorporated into the descent module's hatch. Shortly thereafter it came within range of the antennas at Yevpatoriya, but the controllers still did not know that the braking manoeuvre had been achieved and that, consequently, the descent module was on its way home. If everything was going to plan, then by now they ought to have picked up the VHF transmission. Although Kamanin ordered Dobrovolskiy to report, there was no reply. If the braking manoeuvre had not been performed, then the spacecraft would be in communication between 1.49.37 a.m. and 2.04.07 a.m., and when this session opened Shatalov, who was responsible for communications during re-entry, made repeated calls to no effect.
Just like everyone else in the TsUP, Yeliseyev, the technical flight director, was surprised: "We had asked Dobrovolskiy to make continuous reports as soon as the descent module entered our communication zone, but he was silent. It was strange that Volkov was silent too - he had been very talkative in the recent sessions."
As time passed without news, the anxiety amongst the people in the main control room rapidly increased as they realised that something must have happened. In fact, no one could have imagined the terrible event that had overwhelmed the crew in the cramped descent module.
Soyuz 11 flew over Germany and Poland and onto Soviet territory. At 1.54 a.m. the Soviet tracking radars reported that they had detected it north of the Black Sea at an altitude of about 40 km and 2,200 km from the aim point. It was sheathed by plasma, and hence temporarily out of radio contact. The radar detection was good news, because it confirmed that the spacecraft was on its way home. The controllers in the TsUP assured one another that the silence from the crew must be the result of a radio system failure. The tracking radars reported the reducing range: "Distance 1,800 ... 1,000 ... 500 ... 100 ... 50 km from the planning landing site."
The small drogue parachute deployed on time. Then, at 2.02 a.m., at an altitude of about 7 km, the main chute deployed. During the 15 minutes or so of the descent on the main chute the crew were to make radio contact with the recovery team via the VHF and short-wave antennas built into the shrouds of the parachute, but there was no word. The basal heat shield was automatically jettisoned. At 2.05 a.m., with 13 minutes remaining, the recovery crews on an IL-14 aircraft and four Mi-6 and Mi-8 helicopters reported to the TsUP that they could see the module swinging on its red-and-white main chute and that they had detected signals from it, although there was still no word from the cosmonauts.
The manager of the recovery team, General Kutasin (call-sign 'No. 52'), who was in one of the helicopters, reported directly to the TsUP. The clarity of this radio link was excellent. According to Yeliseyev, beaming smiles came to the faces of the controllers upon hearing that a transmission had been received from the antennas on the main chute - the first signals received from Soyuz 11 since it departed from the communication zone during preparations for the orientation manoeuvre above the Pacific Ocean: "Finally, we heard a report from a helicopter in the planned landing area that they could see the parachute. It was wonderful! ... Then, the report from
No. 52: 'It has landed. Our helicopters are landing nearby.' Well, it seemed that was all. Next, they would report the general state of the crew, and with that we would finish our work. Only a few minutes more."
Colonel Ivan Borisenko, the 'Sporting Commissar', who was actually the member of the recovery team responsible for officially logging the landing parameters, has written: "There was no radio contact with the cosmonauts. ... From the Mi-6 in which I was flying we saw the descent module slowly descending, swinging under the large canopy of the parachute. The soft-landing retro-rockets fired correctly, the module almost stopped for a moment in the air, then settled onto the ground."
The four small rockets automatically fired at a height of 1 metre in order to soften the landing, in the process raising a cloud of dust. At 2.16.52 a.m., Soyuz 11 landed 202 km east of Dzhezkazgan, having overshot the target by 10 km. Exactly 23 days 18 hours 21 minutes 43 seconds had elapsed since it lifted off from Baykonur. At almost the same time, the helicopters landed nearby.
The TsUP awaited General Kutasin's next report, but the radio remained silent.
Yeliseyev recalls the dramatic wait:
Five minutes passed by; 10; 15. ... No news from No. 52. ... How strange. Usually, someone remains in the helicopter to report on the radio the events as they happen One hour has passed. ... No. 52 is still silent. ... It means that something has happened. ...
Suddenly, using an internal channel, Kamanin asked me to come. He was alone in the room used by the State Commission. He never called someone without a reason. As I ran to him, he looked darkly at me and said: "Now they have given me the code '111', which means that they have all perished. We agreed a code: '5' means that their general state is excellent; '4' means good; '3' means there are injuries; '2' means severe injuries; '1' means that a man perished; '111' means that all three perished. It is necessary for us to fly to the landing site, I have ordered the plane."
Kamanin, Shatalov and I were immediately driven to the airport, where an aircraft was ready. I can no longer remember the airport at which we landed. We transferred to a helicopter and were flown to the landing site.
Kamanin did not mention the '111' code in his diary, but he wrote that for at least the first 30 minutes whenever he asked for a report from the landing site the reply
The Soyuz 11 recovery operation was handled on site by Kamanin's aide, General Leonid Goreglyad.
was always: "Wait." Then he received the following message: "General Goreglyad has flown from the landing site to Dzhezkazgan and reported via [short-wave] radio that the outcome of the space flight is the most tragic one."
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