In the midst of delving into the history of Soviet space disasters, I just noticed today’s date. It’s the 22nd anniversary of the Challenger disaster.
This NASA description of an unmanned launch matches Heinlein’s account almost perfectly. It seems clear that his guide was actually telling him the truth in this instance. It really was a dummy, not a cosmonaut, and the cadets were mistaken.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned about several other incidents that I’ve never heard of before. This is from the “Dead Cosmonauts” chapter of James Oberg’s book Uncovering Soviet Disasters:
On April 5, 1975, two cosmonauts were dumped onto the Altai Mountains in the world’s first manned space launch abort. Pilot Vasily Lazarev and flight engineer Oleg Makarov survived a harrowing 20 G descent and then a bouncing ride down a mountainside before their spacecraft came to a safe stop. They came as close to dying as anyone can and later talk about it. Privately Soviet engineers told American colleagues that explosive separation bolts between the second and third stages had been miswired. For many years the Soviet public was left in the dark about these details.
Oberg also describes what sounds like the Soviet version of Apollo 13:
In the second article flight director Viktor Blagov gave a detailed account of the suspenseful Soyuz 33 mission in the spring of 1979, when a two-man spaceship was nearly stranded in orbit. The spaceship’s main engine exploded, and specialists feared that it had damaged the emergency engine as well.
And I can’t believe I’ve never hear about this terrifying episode:
Several dramatic space events never got mentioned in this period — the most dangerous being the Soyuz-5 landing in 1969 when the service module failed to detach from the command module, which then entered front forward and began burning up. Only at the last possible moment did the modules separate and the heat shield turn into the 10,000 degree heat pulse.
Oberg wrote two books on this subject. I’m going to have to get my hands on them.