The funeral service for Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was held last Friday at a private club in suburban Cincinnati.
Armstrong passed away at the age of 82, following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures. It was an ordinary death for an extraordinary man. But not all astronauts have such terrestrial endings. The US Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during liftoff in 1986, killing seven astronauts on their way to space. And in 2003 another seven astronauts were killed when the US Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry. Then there is that select and little known about group of astronauts who have actually died in space.
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On June 7, 1971, the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 11 took off from what is now Kazakhstan and docked successfully at Salyut 1, the world’s first space station. The atmosphere in the station was burnt and smoky and the three-person crew’s first task was to replace part of the ventilation system. While waiting for the air to clear they performed a series of live television broadcasts. The crew eventually entered the station but not without incident. On day 11 a fire broke out, and the N-1 rocket launch that was supposed to be the mission highlight was postponed. Perhaps most disturbingly, the crew discovered that using the exercise treadmill, which they were required to do twice a day, caused the whole space station to vibrate. Nonetheless, Soyuz 11 remained docked with Salyut 1 for 22 days, setting a space endurance record that would hold for several years.
On June 30, Soyuz 11 left the station and descended back to earth, landing in open flat country about 50 miles southwest of Karazhal, Kazakhstan. It seemed like a normal re-entry, but when the recovery team opened the capsule doors they found the crew dead. An investigation determined they asphyxiated after a ventilation valve was jolted open at an altitude of 104 miles above the earth’s surface—space technically begins at 100 miles above the earth. Cabin pressure quickly dropped to zero and all the air was lost. Data taken from biomedical sensors attached to one of the astronauts showed the man died of cardiac arrest. The Soyuz 11 astronauts were given a large state funeral and buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in Moscow. A memorial to the astronauts bearing an engraved image of each one of their faces was erected in Karazhal, and all three men have craters on the moon named after them. They remain the only confirmed human space deaths.
And what about unconfirmed space deaths? During the late 1950s, two amateur astronomer Italian brothers working from an abandoned World War II bunker outside Turin, Italy began employing antennas salvaged from junkyards to listen in on radio frequencies used by the Soviets to track satellites and rockets. On November 28, 1960, the brothers picked up an SOS distress call targeted at the entire world, according to a 1965 article in Reader’s Digest. The message came from a moving space vehicle and was repeated three times. A few days later the Soviets admitted they had made a launch, but did not mention that there was a man aboard. Less than a year later the brothers picked up the voices of three other Soviet astronauts in a desperate situation: “Conditions growing worse why don’t you answer? We are going slower… the world will never know about us…” Then came silence. The incident was never confirmed, but according to the Reader’s Digest article the Soviets may have covered up more than half a dozen space deaths.
The saddest space death story of all surely belongs to the Soviet dog Laika, a stray mutt found on the streets of Moscow. In November 1957 she became the first animal to orbit the earth, on the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2. The goal of the mission was to prove that a living passenger could survive being launched into orbit and endure weightlessness. Engineers were given just four weeks to design and build the spacecraft. It had an oxygen generator and a fan set to keep cabin temperature below 59°F. There was food for seven days, in the form of a high-nutrition gel. Laika was fitted with a bag to collect waste and a harness and chains to restrict her movements. While she was able to stand, sit and lie down there was no room to turn around. Instruments tracked her heart rate, respiration and arterial pressure. After about six hours into the flight she was dead.
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Initially, the Soviets reported Laika had died from oxygen starvation, or that she had been euthanized with a poisoned serving of food. In October 2002, Dimitri Malashenkov, a Sputnik 2 scientist, finally revealed the truth: Laika had died from overheating.