Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Bondarenko/Apollo I Connection

From Soviet space program expert James Oberg's "Uncovering Soviet Disasters":

Even before the first announced Soviet spaceman blasted off in 1961, rumors reached the West about the existence of secret graves of anonymous dead cosmonauts, killed on unannounced missions. Moscow vigorously denied them all, to no effect. Lists of dozens of dead cosmonauts circulated in the Western pressfor many years. The Soviets denounced the originators of such material as "enemies."

Then, in 1986, Golovanov revealed in Irvestiya that indeed there had been a cosmonaut fatality back then after all, and it had been kept secret. His article even included the dead cosmonaut's name, Valentin Bondarenko, and the date of his death, March 23, 1961.

"Valentin was the youngest of the first batch of cosmonauts (he was 24 years old)," Golovanov wrote. A small, grainy formal portrait accompanied the article. It showed a very young man attempting to look stern and important. The photograph had been taken only a few days before his death.

Bondarenko had been undergoing routine training in a pressure chamber, which was part of a ten-day isolation exercise. At the very end of the exercise he made a trivial but fatal mistake. "After medical tests," explained Golovanov's article, "Bondarenko removed the sensors attached to him, cleaned the spots where they had been attached with cotton wool soaked in alcohol, and without looking threw away the cotton wool-- which landed on the ring of an electric hot plate. In the oxygen-charged atmosphere the flames immediately filled the small space of the chamber.
Under such a condition of high oxygen concentration, normally nonflammable substances can burn vigorously. The cosmonaut's training suit caught fire. Unaccustomed to the vigor of high-oxygen fires, Bondarenko would only have spread the flames further by attempting to smother them.

When the doctor on duty noticed the conflagration through a porthole, he rushed to the hatch, which he could not open because the internal pressure kept it sealed. Releasing the pressure through bleed valves took at least several minutes. And for ail that time Bondarenko was engulfed in flames.

"When Valentin was dragged out of the pressure chamber," continued Golovanov's account, "he was still conscious and kept repeating,'It was my fault, no one else is to blame....' " He died eight hours later from the shock of the burns.

Golovanov's candid story, in which he disclosed Bondarenko's death, may have astonished his countrymen, and it briefly made headlines in the Western press; but it was hardly news to informed "space sleuths" in the West. They had been hot on the trail of exactly this incident, and Soviet news censors knew it. The cause and effect of Western digging into a Soviet catastrophe, followed by Soviet large-scale (but still not full-scale) release of an "official account," are quite clear-cut. The broad outlines of the "Bondarenko tragedy" had already slipped past the Soviet cover-up.

In 1982 a recently emigrated Russian Jew named S. Tiktin discussed Soviet space secrets in a Russian-language monthly magazine published by anti-Soviet emigres in West Germany. He mentioned in passing a relevant incident. "Soon after the flight of Gagarin [in 1961] the rumor spread about the loss of cosmonaut Boyko (or Boychenko) from a fire in a pressure chamber," he wrote.

In 1984 St. Martin's Press published a book, entitled "Russian Doctor", by the Russian emigre surgeon Dr. Vladimir Golyakhovsky. He described the death of a cosmonaut trainee in a pressure chamber fire. Half an entire chapter was devoted to the incident -- and with authority -- since, incredibly, Golyakhovsky (a specialized surgeon-traumatologist) had apparently been the emergency room doctor at the prestigious Botkin Hospital when the dying cosmonaut was brought in.

As Golyakhovsky remembered it, a severely burned man identified only as "Sergeyev, a 24-year-old Air Force Lieutenant," was brought in by stretcher. "I couldn't help shuddering," Golyakhovsky recalled. "The whole of him was burnt. The body was totally denuded of skin, the head of hair; there were no eyes in the face. ... It was a total burn of the severest degree. But the patient was alive...."

Golyakhovsky saw the man's mouth moving and bent down to listen. "Too much pain -- do something, please -- to kill the pain" were the tortured words he could make out.
"Sergeyev" was scorched everywhere but the soles of his feet, where his flight boots had offered some protection from the flames. With great dimculty the doctors inserted intravenous lines into his feet (they couldn't find blood vessels anywhere else) and administered painkillers and medication. "Unfortunately, Sergeyev was doomed," Golyakhovsky remembered realizing immediately. "And yet, all of us were eager to do something, anything, to alleviate his terrible suffering." The man lingered for sixteen hours before dying.

Afterward Golyakhovsky reported talking with a small young officer who had waited by the phone in the lobby while the burned man lay dying. The doctor requested and received an account of the original accident. Details included "an altitude chamber... heavily laden with oxygen" and "a small electricstove [with] ... a rag burst[ingl into flame." Golyakhovsky was also told that it had taken half an hour to get the pressure chamber open, with "Sergeyev" on fire until the flames consumed almost all the oxygen inside the room.

Sometime later Golyakhovsky saw a photograph of this deathwatch officer in the newspapers. He had been Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space.
Despite minor distortions, the Tiktin and Golyakhovsky material turned out to provide fundamental, direct, and invaluable leads into a major catastrophe in the early Russian space program. It was left to the Soviets only to fill in the details about the real death of Valentin Bondarenko, and they did in April 1986.

Golovanov's article also provided some new confirmation of many other things we knew or suspected. It had already been known that of the twenty men chosen for space training in March 1960, a prime group of six finalists had later been selected for the first mission, But Golovanov filled in unknown details. One of the original six, a man named Anatoliy Kartashov, had already been grounded after experiencing skinbleeding during a centrifuge run. A second "sixer," Valentin Varlamov, was dropped after injuring his neck in a stupid diving mishap (he died several years later of an unrelated medical problem). Their replacements became some of the first men in space; a quarter century later even Golovanov's glasnost still couldn't publish their photographs.

Another of the twenty cosmonaut trainees (the one named Mars Rafikov) had left later for personal reasons (because he was the only non-Slavic cosmonaut ever selected, his motivation is subject to speculation). The last casualty, Dmitriy Zaikin, was grounded in 1968 for medical reasons (ulcers) after serving on a backup crew.

None of these details had been known at the time, in the early 1960s. Instead, in the absence of Soviet candor, Western observers filled in their ignorance with guesses and rumors, mostly wrong and almost always far worse than the truth.

A few paragraphs later, we read:

The Bondarenko tragedy in 1961 bears disturbing similarities to the catastrophe at Cape Kennedy in January 1967, when three Apollo astronauts also died in an oxygen-rich fire. Without knowledge of the Soviet disaster, NASA engineers grew careless in their own use of pure-oxygen atmospheres. On Apollo I (as in the Soviet cabin) there was material that turned out to be highly flammable under oxygen-rich conditions; on Apollo 1 (as in the Soviet cabin) there was no quick-releasehatch; on Apollo I (as on the Soviet cabin), there was no effective fire-fighting equipment.

Could knowledge of the Bondarenko fire have prevented the Apollo I fire and saved the lives of Virgil ("Gus") Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee? The mere knowledge that a Soviet oxygen-rich fire had killed a cosmonaut might have been enough to forestall an American repetition of the disaster.

Khrushchev was Soviet premier at the time of the Bondarenko tragedy, and ten years later, during his enforced retirement, he remarked in his oral memoirs that in general such accident data should be shared. Discussing the Soyuz 11 tragedy, which had just occurred, he said: "I believe the cause of the accident should be announced for two reasons: first, so that people who still have no idea what happened may be consoled; second, so that scientists might be able to take the necessary precautions to prevent the samething from ever happening again. On top of that, I believe the United States should be informed of what went wrong. After all, Americans, too, are engaged in the exploration of space."

Yet when he had the chance, in 1961, Khrushchev did nothing to carry through this policy. Perhaps he regretted it.

His successors, including Gorbachev, continued this policy of nondisclosure, to the detriment of all space travelers. When in 1965 a space-walking cosmonaut on Voskhod 2 nearly died as the result of hisdifficulties in holding on and moving around outside the spacecraft, the Soviets did not warn their American colleagues at all. Instead, in numerous public statements, they raved about how easy and effortless the whole activity had been (only after nearly a decade did the cosmonauts admit toWestern journalists that they had faked their initial reports). Consequently NASA planners and astronauts underestimated the troubles they could face in similar activities, and in mid-1966 an American astronaut was nearly lost in space when he unexpectedly encountered the same difficulties. Even as late as 1985, when cosmonaut Vasyutin faced a life-threatening infection in orbit, the Soviets refused to share the diagnosis of their problem with American space doctors. For the sake of the safety of future space farers, a bit more "cosmic glasnost" is required.

A few reviews of Oberg's work on the Soviet space program:

"Finally, someone is telling it like it is about the Russian manned space program - the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have relied on Jim for years because no one knows it or tells it like him."
-Walt Cunningham, Apollo astronaut

"This remarkable book is must reading for anyone who wishes to understand the culture with which one must deal when cooperating with Russia."
Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, Apollo moonwalker and US Senator

"A great piece of investigative journalism. A must-read for program managers, engineers, and scientists engaged in present and future projects with Russia."
Gene Kranz, Apollo flight director

"Clear-eyed, cold-blooded look at the real costs and benefits of this joint endeavor. Don't miss this one!"
Richard Truly, former astronaut and NASA administrator

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