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New Book About Soviet Cosmonaut's Crash Into Earth

Starman, a new book by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony to be published next month, documents the horrifying story of Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut who flew into space in 1967 in a poorly-constructed spacecraft with full knowledge that he was going to die. His capsule—Soyuz 1—crashed into Earth, and his body turned molten upon impact, with only a chipped piece of heel bone surviving the crash. U.S. intelligence officials in Istanbul were listening in, and heard him crying as he approached Earth, "cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship" and sent him to his death. 

Vladimir Komarov's remains

Photo: RIA Novosti/Photo Researchers Inc.

The story begins with Komarov's friendship with Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, who, in 1951, was the first person in history to travel into space. They were both assigned by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to a mission that they knew was unsafe. The plan was to launch Komarov into space in Soyuz 1, and two other cosmonauts in another spacecraft. They would meet in space, and Komarov would crawl from the Soyuz into the second capsule and return home. Brezhnev intended the exchange to mark a Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist Revolution. 

Gagarin had inspected Soyuz 1 prior to launching and found 203 technical problems that meant almost certain doom for Komarov. Realizing the mission should be postponed, Gagarin took the issue to his KGB friend Venyamin Russayev, but nobody in the Soviet leadership would pass on the information to Brezhnev out of fear of being fired or sent to Siberia. Starman relies heavily on Russayev's accounts for the details of the mission, as well as previous reporting by Yaroslav Golovanov in Pravda. 

Komarov knew he was going to die, but went through with the launch because he realized if he had refused, Brezhnev would have sent the back up pilot instead, which was his close friend Gagarin. "That's Yura," the book quotes him saying, "and he'll die instead of me. We've got to take care of him." 

As soon as Soyuz 1 left Earth, the problems began. Komarov struggled with navigation. Antennae weren't functioning properly. His fuel was running extremely low. Upon his descent, his parachutes failed to open. American intelligence picked up his last words, which were translated as, "Heat is rising in the capsule." The word "killer" is also audible, probably describing the people who sent him to certain death. 

Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony's Starman will be released on April 12 by Walker & Company.