As the heat-scarred spacecraft settled to a soft, parachute landing on the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, a recovery helicopter was ready and waiting to touch down right alongside. Members of the recovery team raced to the apparently undamaged Soyuz 11, unfastened the hatch and swung it open to assist Cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev. Still strapped in their seats, the cosmonauts did not respond. All three were dead. Russia's triumphant space mission, which had set new records for man's endurance in space, assembled the first manned space station and added new luster to Soviet technology, had suddenly ended in tragedy. In Russia, where cosmonauts are firmly established as 20th century folk heroes, the entire nation mourned. Choked with grief, Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko told a television interviewer that "the price they had to pay was not fair." Somber music echoed from radios, and pictures of the cosmonauts, draped in black, were shown on television. Led by Communist Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet leaders sent condolences to the families of the three dead men, all of whom were married and had children. Final tributes came during a day of national mourning that coincided with the state funeral and burial of the cosmonautsall of them now Heroes of the Soviet Unionin a place of honor in the Kremlin wall. They were placed near the remains of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who was killed in a plane crash three years ago.
President Nixon, mourning the death of the Russian spacemen, said that they had contributed greatly to "the widening of man's horizons." Pope Paul interrupted an audience to announce the sad news. In Geneva, officials postponed the dedication of a gleaming titanium space monument that had been donated by Russia to the Palais des Nations. There was particular gloom in the U.S. space community, especially among the astronauts. Beyond their sorrow for the dead cosmonauts, they felt that the accidentcoming as it did on the eve of the Apollo 15 moon shotmight well diminish public enthusiasm for manned space travel.
For all its tragic end, the mission that resulted in the first human deaths in space-had recorded a series of major achievements. For nearly 24 days, the three cosmonauts had whirled around the earth in their huge, 175¾-ton Salyut space station performing scientific experiments, bantering with mission control, and even celebrating a birthday in orbit. On board both the Salyut and the attached Soyuz shuttle craft, all systems seemed to function flawlessly. Thus last week, when the cosmonauts were ordered to transfer to Soyuz and return to earth, there was little cause for apprehension.
The mission commander, Lieut. Colonel Dobrovolsky, 43, reported that the undocking from the larger ship was uneventful. Then, after orienting their ship at the proper angle the cosmonauts fired Soyuz's main rocket to slow the ship down, drop it out of orbit and send it back into the earth's atmosphere. The rocket functioned perfectly. At the end of the burn, however, there was an ominous development. Long minutes before the radio blackout that always occurs as a returning spacecraft is enveloped by hot, ionized gases, Soyuz 11 unexpectedly lapsed into silence.