On October 11th, 1971, the worlds first Space Station, Salyut 1, burned up on reentry over the Pacific ocean after just 175 days in orbit, and 2 crewed missions to the station. It was the first in a long series of Salyut Stations, a design heritage that would span all the way to the Mir base block, launched in 1986, and on to the Zvezda module of the International Space Station. While the historic significance in both design and application would not be ignored, the story of the worlds first space station would be cut short by tragedy.
Salyut 1 was launched into orbit via the heavy lift Proton rocket on April 19th, 1971, becoming the worlds first Space Station, beating the United States and it’s then under construction Skylab Orbital Workshop by nearly 2 years. Salyut was spawned off of a military project known as Almaz, an orbital spy platform for the military. After losing the race to the moon, the Soviets shifted their resources into long duration Earth Orbital flights using a civilian variation on the Almaz station design. this resulting craft becoming Salyut.
The first planned mission to Salyut 1, Soyuz 10, would launch April 23rd, 1971, and would rendezvous with the station several hours after launch. They would successfully soft dock with the station but could not secure the craft together (a process known as “hard dock”) resulting in them abandoning the station mission and returning home 2 days later.
The next mission, Soyuz 11, launched on June 6th, 1971, and this time the crew was successfully able to hard dock and enter the station. Over the next 23 days they conducted scientific experiments studying both space and astronomical phenomena, the planet Earth, and themselves as they broke the 18 day space endurance record set by Soyuz 9, that mission functioning as a test to ensure people could stay in orbit for a duration longer than 2 weeks, the previous record set by Gemini 7 back in 1965.
The people of the Soviet Union got to watch the day to day activities of the crew on television. The crew, Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov , quickly became well known to people back on Earth. Heroes to the people of their homelands much in the same way as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were to Americans.
The mission was far from perfect, however, with equipment failures, including a burned out air filter system that needed replacement as soon as the crew made it onto the station, and a fire on the 11th day that threatened to end the mission prematurely. After 23 days, it was finally decided to end the mission due to recurring problems with the station, and on June 30th the crew made their return to Earth.
When the descent module was reached by recovery crews after landing, the crew was found dead. While communications had been lost with the crew shortly before reentry began, and contingency preparations had been made in case the crew was lost, I certainly think no one expected to find that the crew, beloved by so many, had died in the few hours between their unlocking from Salyut 1 and their reentry and return to Earth.
The cause was a valve, designed to let in fresh air as the craft parachuted to Earth, coming loose during the separation of the Soyuz module. This left the atmosphere inside the spacecraft vent into space and since Soviet Cosmonauts had not worn pressure suits since the Vostok Program in the early 1960’s (excluding special missions), there was no protection for the crew from such a disaster.
As Soyuz was redesigned to allow a crew in a pressure suit, the Salyut 1 station was raised to a higher orbit, in the hopes that the next Soyuz crew could man it and continue its mission. Sadly, this was not the case, and it was decided inSeptember to deorbit the station after it had spent much of its fuel reserves over the previous months maintaining its low Earth orbit.
On October 11th, the station fired it’s thrusters one final time to slow itself to a point where it would safely burn up over the Pacific Ocean. A fiery end to the worlds first space station, a machine of both triumph and tragedy not just for Russia or the Soviet Union, but for the human race.