Until her death in 2002, Vera Patsayeva collected information on the worst tragedy in the Soviet manned space programme - which claimed the life of her husband. An expert in remotely sensing the Earth from space, she worked at the TsNIIMash, which was located alongside the TsKBEM. She was close to many designers and specialists from the TsKBEM, including Yeliseyev and Raushenbakh, and had access to secret information on the mission. Courtesy of her daughter Svetlana, we can now publish for the first time a chapter from the notes of Vera Patsayeva entitled 'Was there a chance for survival?'
I recall that several days before the end of the flight of the Soyuz 11 crew, I queried well-known cosmonaut K.P. Feoktistov: is it possible that there will be trouble during the landing? I always thought that on a space mission the most dangerous operations are at its start and its end. If anything happens to the hatch in orbit decompression will be instantaneous, and death inevitable for the crew in the cabin without pressures suits.
5 When asked about this by the author, the cosmonauts' children Marina Dobrovolskiy and Svetlana and Dmitriy Patsayev could not confirm Leonov's remark. Also, his remark about Vera Patsayeva is not recorded in her meticulous diary.
Konstantin Petrovich Feoktistov replied that the cabin is reliably protected from decompression. If the hatch is defective, the automated systems would not permit the ship to begin de-orbit. The ventilation system of the cabin can be opened to the environment automatically only during landing, when the external atmospheric pressure reaches a specific value. The cosmonauts can also open and close the shutters of the valves manually, but in space they are automatically closed. So he said there was no reason to worry. The Soyuz spacecraft had been repeatedly tested in landings and had proved itself to be reliable. Furthermore, he said that the reliability of the descent module made it unnecessary for a crew to wear pressure suits.
For a long time after the loss of my husband, I was unable to ask about the causes of the tragedy. I thought the official version of a random loss of cabin pressure explained everything.
But 15 years later I read an article by Vasiliy Pavlovich Mishin in which he said the Soyuz 11 crew had missed a chance to save themselves. They did not close the shutter of the ventilation system in time. Apparently they were unaware of how to act in this emergency. All they needed to have done was to close by hand the ventilation duct through which air was leaking to space. He laid the entire blame for the tragic outcome on the crew. In his opinion, the designers of the spacecraft and the mission planners were not at fault. The crew was lost due to their ignorance of a vitally important system of the ship, and because they were confused.
For me, it was very painful and offensive to read what the Chief Designer wrote about the tragedy. It is painful because he says that the cosmonauts had a chance to save themselves but failed to take it. And it is offensive to the cosmonauts, who are spoken of as if they are guilty for their own loss, and who have no opportunity to defend themselves.
So did they not know how to act? Or did they know, attempted to act, and were unsuccessful? For sure they realised what was happening, because they attempted to unfasten their seat belts in order to reach the source of the air leak. How much time did they have to resolve this? To achieve this was not an easy task in the active phase of the descent, when the dynamic loads pressed them into their seats. Even though the valve that was leaking air to space could be closed by hand, without pressure suits the time available to do so was not great. True, the Chief Designer asserts that it was sufficiently simply to raise a hand. . . . He adds that Viktor Patsayev perished attempting to turn the valve manually, but there was insufficient time for this. However, this proves that the cosmonauts knew the cause of the emergency.
What was the chance of the cosmonauts saving themselves? . . . I decided to find out. Firstly I wanted to understand in more detail what happened in the cabin on the night of 29/30 June 1971 when the de-orbit procedure began. And, in particular, I wanted to know whether the Chief Designer was correct in asserting that the tragedy could have been averted if the cosmonauts were better prepared or had not become confused. . . . On the other hand, was it an inevitable accident? A random event that can strike anyone, irrespective of his experience or preparedness? Or was it a question of fate? Perhaps there was some sort of a prior warning which the cosmonauts did not know how to recognise in preparing for the flight? Or was it the case that there were flaws in the making of the spacecraft of which the Chief Designer did not wish to talk? The cosmonauts lacked the suits that could have protected them in the event of the cabin losing pressure. Was this not an error in the design of the spacecraft?
What was the reason for the crew's loss - their own errors, or the errors of the designers? What was to blame - confusion during the emergency, or the malfunction of a system that should not have failed in that manner?
So I began to question the specialists. I started with the designers because it was the Chief Designer who had put the blame on the cosmonauts. It was very complex to reach Konstantin Feoktistov by telephone and set a meeting to discuss the reason for the tragedy, but he readily accepted. Contrary to my expectation, he was very affable and agreed to answer my questions. Soon I felt free and comfortable with him. After asking permission to switch on my tape recorder, I asked what I considered to be the most important question: During the emergency, was there any realistic possibility of the cosmonauts avoiding catastrophe.
''They must, and they could! They had 30 seconds for that. It is sufficient to unfasten the seat belts and reach up to the valve of the ventilation system in order to close it by hand.''
He explained to me how the valve was designed, and why its operation on this occasion caused the decompression of the descent module. It was to open automatically in the Earth's atmosphere, but the unforeseen had occurred. It was 'unseated' at the time that the descent module separated. Apparently, there was a manufacturing defect.6
Feoktistov does not accept even the slightest possibility that the designers were responsible for the loss of the crew. The decision not to use pressure suits was correct, he thinks, since it facilitated three couches rather than two. Regarding safety, it had to be ensured by the control and manual blocking of the automation using the flight engineer's command panel. Moreover, from the time of Voskhod, when cosmonauts first flew in space without pressure suits, the reliability of the descent module had proven itself by many flights.
Feoktistov also explained: ''I place the moral risk above the physical risk. A cosmonaut always risks his life on a mission, because it is not possible to predict all possibilities.''
Returning to my question, he repeats: ''They wasted time! It was necessary to act immediately. The flight engineer was obliged to know how to act. He had 30 seconds available.''
So the cosmonauts had 30 seconds, and a designer said that was sufficient to
6 Here Feoktistov told Vera Patsayeva of the defect noted by Shatalov. The automatic shutter took the form of a ball fixed in its 'nest' by a screw, but the screw on valve No. 1 was not fastened properly and the shock of the pyrotechnics unseated the ball from the nest.
access the valve's manually operated shutter and close this to halt the leak of air from the cabin.
The fact is that the ventilation system has two openings on opposite sides of the descent module. These are pyrotechnic valves.7 They remain closed in space, and open automatically during the descent through the atmosphere. In addition to the pyrotechnic valves, each opening has a manual shutoff and a fan. One fan directs air into the cabin and the second draws it off. In orbit, when the modules of the ship are connected, both openings are protected by the frame of the orbital module. The operation of either of the pyrotechnic valves opens a passage to space which is about two centimetres in diameter. After midnight on 30 June, when the orbital module was jettisoned, one of the valves inadvertently opened.
The Chief Designer says that the cosmonauts heard the air whistling, and that Patsayev unfastened and reached up to halt the leak, but did not succeed. On the other hand, he said that the tragedy could have been avoided if only the crew had recalled in time the existence of the manually operated shutter. As noted, prior to initiating the descent the crew was to have confirmed that the manually operated shutters in the valves were set according to the flight instruction. Mishin states that it is unknown whether the cosmonauts did not know that they were to do this, or whether they simply forgot to do it.8
Did the cosmonauts forget, or did they not know? In any case, there is the flight instruction in which all of the actions of the crew prior to de-orbit are specified in detail. In addition, there is the Control Group in mission control. It would have ensured that the crew followed the flight instruction without missing out any steps.
In the log book of Soyuz 11, which is stored in NPO Energiya, is a page that lists the actions prior to the descent. In the instruction, it states that both at the cosmodrome prior to launch and before de-orbit the crew must verify the settings of the manually operated shutters in the valves of the ventilation system.
The records of the radio communications between the cosmonauts and the operators of the ground-based services at the cosmodrome confirm that they made this test prior to launch.
Arkadiy Ilyich Ostashev, the tester at the ground-based complex, said that in checking the Soyuz 11 spacecraft at the TsKBEM and in preparations at Baykonur a discrepancy was noted between the onboard documentation and that of the manufacturer about the ventilation valves. According to Ostashev, the operator instructed that the settings of the manual shutters of the valves be altered. As a result, the inscription 'Closed' meant that the shutter was open!
7 As explained earlier, there was a small pyrotechnic charge in each valve to release the ball from its nest. Both valves were on the same electric circuit.
8 As may be inferred from Mishin's remarks, he made contradictory accounts in interviews given many years later. The fact that Leonov says he discussed the valves with the crew proves that they were aware of their settings, because they decided to use the settings which were specified in their onboard instruction. The thrust of Mishin's argument was that he wished to place the blame on the crew's training (which was the responsibility of Kamanin) rather than on the design of the craft by his bureau.
When the automatic shutter on a valve became unseated, a decompression was therefore inevitable.
In an attempt to explain why and how this error occurred in the onboard documentation, I turned to Viktor Petrovich Varshavskiy, who was our great authority for onboard documentation. During the flight of the Salyut station, he was the leader of the group that made the instructions for the cosmonauts, and oversaw their operation in orbit.
''When the first orbital station was launched, the mission control centre was not as it is today. There was no computer to process flight information. Communication with the cosmonauts was undertaken from Yevpatoriya. We were on duty 24 hours per day. Revisions into the instruction and the flight programme were made daily. Often the cosmonauts grew angry because we made so many changes and because sometimes these were inconsistent with the state of apparatus. In terms of organisation, at that time we weren't ready to the operate such a station. The first design imperfections were revealed by Soyuz 10, when a problem in its docking mechanism prevented the docking with the station. That crew was obliged to return to Earth. We were allowed just a month to make the modifications to the docking system. Soyuz 11 was urgently transported to the cosmodrome to meet a schedule for launching to the station. There was very little time to draw up the new instruction and to compare it with the manufacturer's documentation for that particular vehicle. That is how the divergence arose. And unfortunately when the cosmonauts began their preparations for the de-orbit manoeuvre, our 'controllers' forgot to remind them of the corrections to the onboard instruction.''
At the moment of separating the modules after the de-orbit manoeuvre, the shock from the explosive bolts unseated the ball of the automated part of the valve above Dobrovolskiy's couch, allowing air to escape. In addition to the whistle of the air, the signal horn warned of a decompression. Immediately, a thick fog was formed in the cabin. The crew had only seconds to analyse the situation, and act. It was necessary to unfasten the seatbelts, stand up and stop the leak. Unbeknownst to the crew, however, in the case of the valve above Patsayev 'Open' meant closed, and for the valve above Dobrovolskiy 'Closed' meant the automated shutter was open. They had to act on the indications. However, the barographic data shows that the pressure fell so rapidly that after 13 seconds they were rendered ineffective.
Thirteen seconds to eternity. Was this sufficient? If the situation is regular (as cosmonauts say) then it is a lot. But it is far less if the situation is out of control - as it was to men exposed to the vacuum of space without pressure suits.
Gennadiy Fyodorovich Isayev, who for many years observed and analysed the actions of cosmonauts in space, answered my question very emotionally.
''It is not possible to raise the question in that way! What is enough time, and what is insufficient time? There were only a few seconds available! This was, as we say, a non-standard situation. There was no standard solution. A cosmonaut performs his work in accordance with instruction, and such work is called regular. He cannot train for uncertainty. In a non-standard situation time is required to evaluate the situation and devise a solution. This time can be completely different to the one calculated by training instructors on Earth. The tragedy of Soyuz 11 clearly shows that there were flaws in the project. The cosmonauts could not control the automation in the most important system protecting their lives, so they could not immediately counter the malfunction. Starting with the first Voskhod flight, the spacecraft designers deprived the cosmonauts of recovery facilities in the case of a cabin decompression. It is the inevitable result of the generally inadequate relationship of society to the man. It is the philosophy of the totalitarian system in which we lived.''
In 1971 Skella Aleksandrovna Bugrova worked for the Control Group in Yevpatoriya. She recalls that the 'sliding' circadian rhythm imposed on the first Salyut crew had a serious effect on their health and relationships with the people on Earth. With added fatigue and the influence of weightlessness, they became spiritually and physically overloaded. ''And we on Earth could not manage to analyse the flight information. As a result, we were slow to respond to the questions and observations of the crew, which irritated them. In our memories, even today, are the last conversations with them before the descent. If we had not rushed the crew to prepare for the descent, if only the flight director had had the courage to postpone the undocking from Salyut in order to fully investigate the absence of the signal from the hatch, and then reviewed once again the status of the life support system, then maybe the tragedy would have been avoided.''
Was this article helpful?