We were unable to load Disqus. If you are a moderator please see our troubleshooting guide.

Peter Frye • 7 years ago

@wrporter who wrote:

"This photo is obsene and an outrage! Would you put a photo of Gus Grissom or Christa McAuliffe burn mulilate bodies on the web for a story about Apollo 1 or Challenger? This man was ahero who died for his country there was no reason for his disgraceful behavior. Shame on you NPR!"

The photo was shocking yes. Obscene...depends on what is more obscene, the choice to have the photo in the story, the choice to make the photo, the choice to have an open casket with the charred remains, or the choice to have had the botched launch that led to his imminent death. To me the true obcenity is the launch, all the others are mere honest reportings of the tragedy that could have and should have been prevented. Grissom and Mcaulliffe were not deaths in which people chose to send them up with certainties of their demise, this one was a wilful neglect in a corrupt dictatorship. Are photos of the tragedies of the holocaust obscene? Khmer Rouge? HIroshima? A hero? Yes he was, but not for dying for his country, but dying BECAUSE of his country, and now we can see the truth. Shame on people who would cover up historical truths, just so that we can have rosy pictures of life. THANK YOU NPR, for honest reporting.

Rick Peters • 7 years ago

Poorly written and edited story. If all that was found was a "chipped heel bone," why is there a photo of the burned remains in an open casket?

Scott Jones • 7 years ago

Makes you wonder if Yuri Gagarin plane accident in 1968 was the Soviet's way of closing this incident forever?

Scott Woofson • 7 years ago

The center of this story for me is not the sensational yet understandable emotions either expressed by Komarov in his descent or by readers freaked out by the callousness of putting the man's scorched corpse in an open casket. It's not even about that A-hole Brezhnev. It's about what amazing friendship was exhibited by heroic and intelligent men who had such heroic qualities DESPITE NOT BECAUSE of the Soviet system that made human lives tools of a fool's ideology.

The Russians are a wonderful, talented and spiritual people and there is much to learn from them. Excessive trust, faith and fear of their singular rulers is not one of those things we can learn from them. It almost always turns tragic. Constitutional democracy with a developed legal system that utilizes the grand Russian intellectual tradition is what would have kept someone like Brezhnev accountable, but that simply wasn't the system they had under communism. Komarov therefore suffered, and his family and his friends.

Gagarin had the humility to say "postpone" but the fear of Brezhnev's pride within the chain of command is what brought disaster. The best of Russia was exhibited by the cosmonauts, and the worst, by Brezhnev in this situation.

Let's focus on the good.

chris parker • 7 years ago

Vlad Ser,

RE: "cry in rage"

This is a case where learning a language doesn't really mean understanding its native speakers. What is meant is what is called a "cri de couer," OR "cry from the heart." It isn't made out of cowardice or fear of death, but springs forth from a personal rejection of a situation. In this case, of a people brought low in servitude to such creatures as Brezhnev, prostrate in the presence of the rumor of their shadow. The self-contempt, if you will, of what a great people had visited upon themselves.

Edward Nilges • 7 years ago

Let us not forget the Challenger and Columbia incidents lest this story be attributed to Soviet era incompetence. In Challenger, what was described as a "broken safety culture" in which engineers were afraid to insist on the cancellation of the launch and in which they were browbeaten into approving a launch that killed everyone onboard (including the "teacher in space" Christa McAuliffe) was never really fixed.

This despite the fact that an anthropologist with the University of Chicago, Diane Vaughan, analyzed this culture and its interaction with technology in "The Challenger Launch Decision", published in 1999.

Despite the fact that Vaughan was part of the effort to address the problems caused by the lack of freedom of speech within NASA, essentially the same sort of "anthropological" problem occured again in 2003: in 1986, the fact that alloys on O-rings were untested in the lower air temperatures of the 1986 launch was ignored by NASA managers; in 2003, the problem of heat shielding falling off in launch, damaging the craft, was likewise registered and then ignored...with engineers trying to address the problem being told it was a sort of known unknown.

James Oberg • 7 years ago

Piecing together a true history of the Russian space program has been a jigsaw puzzle exercise covering decades, with lots of people contributing pieces. Some of the results indicate answers to a few of the good questions asked here:

John Brodston: "I believe there were at least two Russian missions that were monitored by US listening posts in which the spacemen were overheard screaming obscenities and dying in agony as their capsules continued to circle until they were burned to a cinder by the earth's atmosphere."

There were such stories, but in the end they evaporated as imaginary and misinterpreted myths. But it wasn't obvious for a long time.

I've concluded that both the Challenger and Columbia disasters were preventable, and were traceable to failure of a strict safety culture in a few critical decision-makers. In 1996, as I sensed the culture decaying again in NASA (where I worked), I testified before congress to that effect and soon left the program -- without being able to stop the slide towards a second shuttle disaster. Both us and the Russians know how to fly in space with minimal danger -- but sometimes we forget.

I never saw anyevidence that Reagan or any White House flunky put launch pressure on NASA. [more]

Naomi Adams • 7 years ago

Maybe they should put cyanide capsules in those things. Just a thought.

Aaron Arshavin • 7 years ago

@Rick Peters
"Poorly written and edited story."
Example(s)? I am an editor, albeit a historical editor, and found the article very well executed.

"If all that was found was a 'chipped heel bone,' why is there a photo of the burned remains in an open casket?"
Really? I cannot tell if you are being serious. If so, make an effort before you post.

James Oberg • 7 years ago

The gut-wrenching image of Komarov's remains has been around for awhile but does NOT show an open coffin for a state funeral. It shows General Kamanin making all the other cosmonauts file by in the morgue to see what could happen to THEM. The funeral carried an urn of ashes, after cremation was completed. A substantial amount of other remains were later recovered at the crash site and interred there. I got close (tens of miles) to that site a few years ago but was unable to visit it.

Anna Garcia • 7 years ago

I don't know if the story is true or not. Maybe the Russayev character is a composite of a few sources that, even today, worry about their skin. Some of the readers seem to find certain things that happened to people under communist rule a bit strange; that's because they never experienced it. As for the comment that "a Russian cosmonaut would not cry in rage", nonsense, anybody can cry. Russian, American or any other nationality.

jeff meneely • 7 years ago

This is truly amazing, and demonstrates that courage is universal.

Aaron Arshavin • 7 years ago

Amazing story. Even more amazing is that the conservative trolls now feel safe to come out and lambaste an NPR article they deem ideologically on par with Soviet Russia. That's quite the stretch, guys!

Peter Frye • 7 years ago

To Andrew Stergiou...I am sorry, but do you know me? Based on your assumption that I am a "captialist pig" you do not. I consider myself far from a lover of capitalism, or socialism, communism, or any other ism that we as flawed human beings design for ourselves to gain power and wealth. However, I was not even referring to any social political or economic system when making my point. In fact I was only pointing out the the danger of choosing to censor history such as photos and stories about tragedies, which was a desire of another commenter on this page. If I am a "capitalist pig" for wanting truth to be told, be it about Soviet or United States (I don't descriminate), than I guess you can call me that. I will assume instead, however, that you misunderstood my intent.

Fred Goodwin • 7 years ago

The "open casket" was a private viewing by fellow cosmonauts -- it was not open for the public. I don't have a cite -- I belive this was stated somewhere among the comments.

And the "debunking" being referred to was the myth of multiple Soviet space deaths other than those of Komarov and the crew of Soyuz 11. There is no credible evidence of such claims.

Michael Lonergan • 7 years ago

Ed Sullivan (Noddysboy) wrote:

"Comparing the American space disasters to those of the Soviets is foolishness. NASA astronauts did not die because of deliberate negligence."

It could be argued that the Challenger Disaster was caused by deliberate negligence. Some Morton-Thiokol engineers begged NASA not to launch Challenger due to extreme cold. They knew the effect it would have on the O-rings. However, they faced immense pressure by the Reagan administration, and NASA Managers to get the mission off the ground.

Rose Jacob • 7 years ago

Old men are always ready to send young men to die.

chris parker • 7 years ago

A related story comes from the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who wrote in his autobiographical collection (of short stories and fact articles) that he and his wife were touring the Soviet Union BEFORE Gagarin's historic flight. That the REAL first flight went up in heavy secrecy while they were there. And then, in short order, but after initial word was spreading outside of official channels, WENT DOWN. Crashed and burned. Immediately, the Iron Curtain descended with a thud, eyes were averted in the street, voices ceased, and the couple were hustled out of dodge.


C W • 7 years ago

From Nixon's alternate statement: "These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding."

You don't hear that kind of purpose and drive in the pursuit of increasing our society's knowledge these days. The only thing that seems to be important in politics any more is how to increase the bottom line of a select few corporations and individuals.

Mark Novak • 7 years ago

I think this is a cautionary tale of what happens when one group get so in control yet out of touch as to deny reality. I think there are forces at work around the world and in our country that are taking us down the very same path and the consequences are far more tragic.

Alex L • 7 years ago

@Who-told-them-to show-our-name:
""His body turning molten on impact" Since when does running into something cause that thing to melt."

Something moving so fast with such force would have a lot of kinetic energy and it's very likely that moving at such a high speed, some of that would have to change into heat energy.
I hope we all know that when things get hot, they melt.

James Oberg • 7 years ago

The warning needs to be repeated that readers cannot assume the book's account is verified, or even balanced, and in fact may be counter-indicated by the preponderence of credible testimony. If they are relying on the justifiably-respected Mr. Krulwich to have provided such verification or balance in this instance, they also need to reconsider -- and he needs to clarify the degree to which he endorses the story's authenticity. The challenge -- and the charm -- of Soviet space mysteries of the Space Age is that often there are mutually irreconcilable versions of key events that take decades to properly assess, if ever. And that, as in all fields of oral history, there can be people telling wondrous stories that are mostly or entirely imaginary.

James Downing • 7 years ago

I agree: final moments should generally be kept private, or at least as private as the situation allows however, I think that airing Vladimir Komarov's final statements impacts the situation precluding this tragedy. The risks for space travel are extremely high, but in this particular case there was open knowledge of problems which would endanger the cosmonaut's life, and they were blatantly swept under the rug for the sake of national pride and fear of retribution. His final anxious words unmistakably stand as an eerie testament and reminder to the truth behind this incident and all the implied lessons which follow. I for one will be reading this book and thank NPR for sharing.

Lynette Marie • 7 years ago

So, was Gagarin demoted for writing the memo? Is that how he became the back up pilot?

Komarov said: "If I don't make this flight, they'll send the backup pilot instead." Did Komarov really have the option of not making the flight? And couldn't the back up pilot then have the same option?

Couldn't the two have formed a united front?

James Oberg • 7 years ago

Just be cautious that some of the most dramatic details of the actions of Komarov and Gagarin are based on a single witness, Venyamin Rusyayev [Венямин Русяев], whose stories (and even his access to these men) remains unconfirmed as far as I or my colleagues know. And they are counter-indicated by historical documents of known authenticity, such as General Kamanin's diary.... and he was in charge of the cosmonauts at the time.

Mark Mark, by the way, the cosmonauts didn't just carry a pistol "up until about 20 years ago", they still do -- but don't expect NASA to tell you anything about it [grin]! The guns are right up there at the ISS, one per Soyuz, as we speak.

Leonov's book is delightful with the warning that he is a heroic story teller of tales that have improved with age, and the editors decided never to ruin them by checking them.

Vlad Ser • 7 years ago

While the general line of the story is apparently correct - it can be easily compiled based on the info freely available on Russian internet, specifically in Wikipedia. Two points which are supposed to "sell" the story smell bad. First, being native Russian speaker I carefully searched Russian Internet and found not a single mentioning of the KGB agent Venyamin Russayev. This name transliterates very well and the fact that no single mentioning of this person along or in the context with the name of Komarov leads to only one conclusion - this is a fictional character. Given that current Russian press is very eager to tell any sort of conspiracy theory, including the story that Gagarin never flew to space, I don't believe that KGB person name would not show up immediately.
The second thing is that it's not in character of the first Soviet cosmonauts to "cry in rage", they may have sweared really badly, but cry - never. They knew very well how slim their chances to come back anytime they flew. Six unmanned test launches followed that tragic flight until the spaceship was considered "safe".

So the bottom line is: in attempt to sell the recycled piece of info authors putsome gristly details on the cover. Is this a novelty?

Jay O'Callaghan • 7 years ago

I'm looking at the Safire memo "IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER" and wonder if I am reading it correctly. Look at the second para. and then the last two paras. They seem to say that if the astronauts were stranded on the moon but still alive, NASA would nevertheless cut off all contact with them and leave them to eventually die alone, without even the comfort of moral support from home. Have I read this wrong (I hope)?

Archie Haaase • 7 years ago

Honestly I am impressed these military officers are looking at the end result of their commanders both political, and military leaders creation. Wish we Americans would be so lucky to have our leaders stare at the remains and results of their mistakes.say this as America rages against another oil rich nation 10th rate military.

Bob H • 7 years ago

Fascinating offbeat stories like this are one of the biggest reasons I've followed NPR for decades. Thank you Robert K.

I agree with AliLou about the image of Komarov's remains. This is probably the most unusual aspect of the story.

Someone made the gruesome and bizarre decision to show that large cinder in an open casket (I can't imagine that EVER happening in the US with NASA).

This decision begs explanation, though I realize there may be none forthcoming (so I'll toss out a few speculative questions).

Did the engineers overridden by the politicians rebel and demand the open casket to emphasize their point that the flight should never have flown?

Did the politicians insist on the show to quiet grumbling in the cosmonaut corps (i.e. you may be next)?

Did some not quite top politician want to embarrass Brezhnev?

Is there any way to answer this intriguing question?

Any other readers have any insight or other speculations?

chris parker • 7 years ago

Vlad Ser,

To add to my last post:

That cry was "The Gulag Archipelago" in a sound bite.

Vlad Ser • 7 years ago

I usually order books recommended by NPR and more often then not they are excellent read. At the same time NPR not once showed some sort of condescending look toward Russia and former Soviet republics. That means that ideology still takes over the common sense and serious research.

Edward Nilges • 7 years ago

Bruce Goldensteinberg (?), that's just strange. In fact, NPR hardly ever criticises the USA. For example, the above article makes no mention of the Challenger and Columbia accidents that I describe below.

To say that NPR comes out with this article in response to threatened elimination basically means that no matter what it does, you'll ascribe it evil motivations...because you want your radio dial to contain nothing but contemporary country music, come-to-Jesus, and the hatred and the venom of conservative talk shows.

Joel Hunnicutt • 7 years ago

Let me make up something out of the air, like Mr Goldsteinberg did: If those of Mr Goldsteinberg had their way, US Spacecraft would be as shoddily constructed - since they would be denied needed funding to prevent it, and no regulations would bar shoddy spacecraft. "Those are MY tax dollars!!!", Mr Goldsteinberg would yell, as the American spacecraft would come flaming to earth.

See? We can all make things up. Course my story is pretty close to the truth...

s walton • 7 years ago

WHOA..... dang, i don't think i will ever be able to listen to one of my "island 10" fave songs - David Bowie's "Space Oddity" ("ground control to Major Tom...") - the same way ever again... :-(
goosebump moment!
p.s. I <3 NASA!!!

Malcolm Mclean • 7 years ago

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^ TWO GREAT PIONEERS OF SPACE REMEMBERED *^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

The one overriding observation is that both Komarov and Gagarin were hero's of the universal space program, together with all those that have died in the pusuit of the exploration of space:

Soyuz 11. 1971. Dobrovolski; Patseyev; Volkov.

Apollo 1. Grisson, White, Chafee.

Challenger 1986 - Smith; McNair; Onizuka; McAuliffe; Jarvis; Scobee and Resnik.

Columbia 2003 - Husband; McCool; Anderson; Ramon; Chawla; Brown and Clark.

Kristen Bachelor • 7 years ago

More on this subject (factually correct) can also be found in Colin Burgess's excellent "Into That Silent Sea" - the first chapter speaks authoritively on Gagarin and Komarov and their relationship around the time of this flight.

Jeffrey J • 7 years ago

Good writeup, the closer you come to death the more alive you feel.

Analog Kid • 7 years ago

Open casket. Nice.

quoc nguyen • 7 years ago

Strange. Mr. Bruce Goldensteinberg's comment is just as ideological, idiotic, ill-informed, and insensitive as the Soviet scum-nuts he is criticizing against. Very, very strange. The story of Gagarin and Komarov is heart-rending though. Goddammit, it makes me angry.

Peter Wang • 7 years ago

"ideological brethren in the former Communist Soviet Union"

Nice association fallacy.

If I had a red herring for every time someone uses this fallacy, I'd open my own imaginary sushi restaurant.

Its quite entertaining to see the lengths of trouble people are willing to go through to nitpick facts that fit with their own opinions.

Jon Preston • 7 years ago

For those who question the incineration you need to go back and look over those old chemistry textbooks gathering dust on your shelf. What happened when the Soyuz hit the earth at terminal velocity is very similar to what happens in a sub at depth when the hull is compromised. There were some comparable launch decision issues with regard to the shuttle mission STS-51L that were not quite so extreme but did happen at the exectutive level.

James Oberg • 7 years ago

"Pindosian", I meant to type -- oops!
See http://www.languagehat.com/archives/002639.php

James Oberg • 7 years ago

After the story was picked up by the Daily Mail and then the Moscow press today, the Russian discussion and comment forums are ablaze with angry attacks on the 'pinodosian' [read -- 'damyankee'] devils who are smearing their space holiday with lies. The authors are actually Brits, of course, and 'smearing' was just another paycheck in their estimation, I'm guessing. For example, see http://kp.ru/daily/forum/article/817707/

Albin Rose • 7 years ago

The big question I have for Chuck Longton (Chuck2200), Donald Mitchell (DonaldPMitchell) and all the folks who say this has been de-bunked is this:

If it was a publicity stunt, what purpose would it serve to pretend a cosmonaut died a crispy critter in space? Was it to cover up something up that was actually far worse?

The second big question goes to NPR.org, and Robert Krulwich specifically:

Would you be so kind as to reply to these allegations? Either to concede to them in the name of journalistic responsibility, or to stop them from clogging the comments field?


Bhanu Kishore • 7 years ago

Very tragic story. Only because of Brezhnev's insistence the mission was carried out. Sad that mere cat race between two countries contributed significantly to his death.

Donald Mitchell • 7 years ago

NPR needs to seriously fact check this article. I suggest they begin by talking with Asif Siddiqi about what really happened to Komarov.

Robert de Builder • 7 years ago

The first photograph supposedly shows a rather large lump of Komarov's remains in a casket yet the article states that "only a chipped heel bone survived the crash".

Which is correct.

James Oberg • 7 years ago

Dr. siddiqi is the leading space historian on the Russian space program of this generation, and his authoritative work, CHALLENGE TO APOLLO:
is available for free download at

Diana Yusina's comment on Sunday, March 20, 2011 2:22:03 AM that "USSR lost only one astronaut in space" is incorrect, three more cosmonauts died in June 1971, as their Soyuz-11 cabin depressurized. The percentage of space fatalities is approximately the same for the cosmonaut program and the astronaut program.

Albin Rose • 7 years ago

Vladimir Kamarov: A truly noble man, and a hero. Lenoid Brezhnev and his many cronies: Craven and despicable bureaucrats and cowards. Which we already knew.

But of course, there are the three Americans who died in a space ship as well--albeit on the ground, but still. What sets Kamarov apart is his knowledge that he would die up there, and he went anyhow, to save his friend. In a Hollywood movie, he would take out his superiors, commando-style, and he and his buddy would high-tail it to the West. Looks like his ending was much more tragic and honorable.

Oh-and concerning what David Pittard (DBP) wrote:
"Two commenters have debunked the article; will NPR either refute them or admit they are right?"

While at first glance, such a comment seems to put people like Pittard in the "we never landed on the moon" camp, it would be nice to have someone at NPR respond, if only to put an end to the doubts. Personally, I would love to walk away from this article without the nagging doubt that the story was mis-presented somewhere down the line.


Guy Hoyle • 7 years ago

We always used to hear rumors of Soviet cosmonauts who had secretly died in space. Here is an account of one of those mysterious deaths, a horrifying portrait of Brezhnev's USSR.