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Soyuz-5 makes near-fatal crash landing

On Jan. 18, 1969, Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov narrowly escaped death during a harrowing reentry and hard landing of his Descent Module, but not without severe injuries.

Previous chapter: Soyuz-4 landing


After the successful rendezvous, spacewalk and landing of Soyuz-4, the only major item left in the program of the dual mission was the return to Earth of the Soyuz-5 spacecraft with Boris Volynov onboard.

At the end of the day on January 17, Kamanin chaired a meeting of the search and rescue management. After reviewing their disposition, the officials penciled the landing for the first daylight orbit of the mission on January 18, with the touchdown expected at 09:30 Moscow Time. They planned to finalize the return timeline at 06:00 in the morning on January 18.

Mishin recorded the following milestones at the conclusion of the Soyuz-5 flight on January 18:

Communications window opens
Communications window ends
Orbit 50
10:56 Moscow Time
11:16 Moscow Time
Orbit 51
12:25 Moscow Time

*Counting from the launch of the Soyuz-4 mission.

At 05:00 on January 18, after a conversation with Volynov over the UHF radio during the 13th orbit on the third day of the mission, the cosmonaut Pavel Belyaev, who sat at mission control in Crimea, assured Kamanin and other officials there that everything was well aboard Soyuz-5.

As agreed the night before, at 06:00, Kamanin opened the meeting of the search and rescue specialists. They broke the news that already harsh weather conditions at the landing area had gotten even worse: the winds were picking up and temperature had fallen to minus 35 degrees.

Still, the team decided to proceed with the landing during the first available corridor, which would take the Descent Module across the Caspian and the Aral Seas and bring it to a touchdown near Karaganda. Mission control also wanted to give another try to the manual attitude control during the orientation of the spacecraft for the braking maneuver.

To rehearse the manual attitude control, ground controllers asked Volynov to perform an orientation exercise on the second-to-last orbit of the day on January 17. Volynov did everything as planned, but he reported that he got only a nine-minute interval between his ship's exit from the shadow (which was preventing visual guidance for manual control) and the scheduled activation of the braking engine. That was about two minutes short of the necessary time for measuring and the establishing necessary position of the ship along three axes for the maneuver. Fortunately, two subsequent orbits on January 18 were also suitable for landing, before the reentry would have to be postponed for one day. Because Volynov assured the ground that he was in good shape and all systems aboard Soyuz-5 were working well, mission control decided to go ahead with the manual attitude control ahead of the braking maneuver for the reentry attempt during the first available window on January 18.

During the poll at mission control, all key officials, including Feoktistov, Tregub, Bashkin, Chertok, Varshavsky and Beregovoi voted for the manual attempt.

Mission control relayed Volynov instructions for landing, stressing that he should not worry if he would ran out of time when orienting the spacecraft into the right position and, as a result, had to abort the braking maneuver. Given the low chances of success, mission control also uploaded all the necessary commands aboard Soyuz-5 for a landing during the second window of the day.

January 18: Soyuz-5 heads for landing

On the landing day of January 18, all the members of the State Commission and around a hundred support specialists crowded into the main control room at NIP-16 in Yevpatoria, Crimea.

The planned moment for the firing of the braking engine at 08:48:49 Moscow Time came and went, but only seven minutes later, they heard "I, Baikal" from Volynov and he calmly reported that the manual orientation had failed. As during the rehearsal, Volynov needed two extra minutes of daylight to establish the attitude for braking. "Waiting for instructions," he concluded and received expected advice to prepare for an automated landing during the next orbit.

The second deorbiting attempt also took place beyond the communications range and only Volynov's report via a small antenna in the Descent Module gave mission control the first news about the reentry. The subsequent reports about other key milestones came between 10 and 12 agonizing minutes late.

The first confirmation about the deployment of the parachute came from Volynov himself, but he also reported the alarming news that the capsule was spinning half a rotation per second. It was now clear that the Descent Control System, SUS, had failed and the capsule had gone into a ballistic descent. Remembering Komarov's tragedy, officials were now worrying that the wildly spinning capsule could cause the parachute lines to tangle and prevent its normal deployment.

To the relief of the officials, mission control then got the news that the parachute had opened as planned and for the next 12 minutes the capsule conducted what then appeared to be a nominal descent. Mission control then got the word about the transmission from post-landing beacons, but only 15 minutes after the scheduled touchdown, General Kutasin reported "The cosmonaut feels excellent."

Kutasin's announcement was immediately followed with hugs, kisses and mutual congratulations in the control room. As in a few cases before, the celebrating specialists in Crimea had no idea what had just happened inside the spacecraft.

Reentry and landing: a view from inside

According to Volynov's recollections, six seconds after the completion of the braking maneuver, the sequence started for the separation of the Habitation Module and the Instrument Module from the Descent Module with the pilot inside.

The Habitation Module separated with a violent jolt, but the Instrument Compartment failed to do so. Due to secrecy, Volynov had to avoid announcing the problem over the radio and instead he just reported that he could still see the solar panel through the window. Volynov assumed that ground controllers would realize what was happening, since the solar panels were attached to the Instrument Compartment.

Because of the failed separation, the flight control system of the Descent Module had a problem positioning the capsule tail-first so that its main heat shield would take the brunt of the incoming heat loads during the reentry into the dense atmosphere.

Volynov believed that slowly increasing air pressure was forcing the stack to fly nose first with its bulky Instrument Module still in tow and its solar panels serving as stabilizers. In response, the flight control system was attempting to correct the position of the capsule, turning it around. The struggle of two forces resulted in a dizzying carousel-like motion leaving Volynov nothing else to do but to try to calculate the spin rate. He hoped that increasing heat loads would soon tear off the flimsy solar panels and the Instrument Module itself.

However, the module stubbornly stayed in place and the stack plunged into the searing heat of dense atmosphere nose first.

Volynov felt how escalating g-loads pulled him out of the seat, leaving him hanging on his straps, instead of pushing him into the seat as it had been designed during the nominal landing.

He activated a special recorder which was located over his left shoulder. The device used a magnetic metal wire designed to preserve data even after a fire. Volynov began recording his observations to help investigators to better understand what he then thought could be a repeat of Komarov's fatal landing.

The cosmonaut's worst nightmare was watching the front bulkhead of the spacecraft taking the brunt of heat loads, which it had not been designed to withstand. Volynov could already smell the burning resin of the sealant on the perimeter of the entry hatch, which could be followed by the depressurization of the capsule at any moment and with the incineration of its interior by plasma. The hatch itself was designed to withstand only a relatively low heat load.

Fortunately, the titanium bulkhead of the module resisted just long enough for the Instrument Compartment to finally let go so that the freed capsule could finally assume its nominal reentry attitude.

According to one scenario, thermal sensors on the Instrument Module triggered a backup command for its separation. Another explanation credits a propellant explosion inside the Instrument Module resulting from overheating.

The botched reentry precluded the nominal aerodynamic descent of the capsule and, instead, it entered the ballistic mode with loads reaching 9g and accompanied by chaotic and violent tumble.

Decades later, Volynov told the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine that after separation from the instrument compartment at an altitude of 80 or 90 kilometers, his capsule first tumbled and than switched to a rotation around its main axis. The parachute system was activated at an altitude of 10 kilometers as planned, however after the release of the main parachute, its lines began to twist into a braid. Suddenly, the capsule stopped rotating and Volynov heard the screeching of the metal lines of the parachute. Fortunately, the suspension withstood the pressure and, the fully inflated parachute apparently began to unwind its lines, this time, spinning the capsule in the opposite direction all the way to the ground.

The touchdown was so hard on Volynov's upper torso that the roots of his upper teeth broke.

As he opened the hatch, he was showered with the ashes of the burned resin in the sealant. The top surface of the hatch was pockmarked with frozen bubbles of melted metal. It was immediately clear that only some redundant strength of the hatch interface had helped avert a disaster.


Because of his ballistic descent, Volynov landed around 600 kilometers short of his primary landing area at 10:59 Moscow Time. The site turned out to be 200 kilometers southwest of the city of Kustanai in Kazakhstan. Still, the shaken pilot was met with the minus 38-degree cold of the snow-covered Kazakh steppe.

Fortunately, the crew of a passenger plane flying over the area spotted the capsule and reported its position. Three conscript soldiers and a Sr. Lieutenant were the first to reach Volynov and his capsule. "I am not gray haired?" Volynov remembers his first question to his rescuers. He then asked for a cigarette and was offered "just 'Shipka'" (one of the cheapest brands).

On the evening of January 18, Volynov was re-united with his crew mates in Tyuratam. His severe jaw injury limited his diet to broth and juices, which he could only intake through a straw, because his teeth were so loose. In the following days, Volynov, along with his crew mates had to go through an array of official ceremonies and public events and pretend to be in perfect shape after another flawless space mission.

Perhaps, the luckiest space flyer ever, Volynov spent three days, 54 minutes in space and lived to tell a tale very similar to what his colleague Vladimir Komarov had not survived in a fatal accident almost two years earlier, but Volynov was only able to share the details of his ordeal publicly decades later.

Next chapter: Launch of the 7K-L1 No. 13L circumlunar mission

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The article and illustrations by Anatoly Zak; Last update: January 20, 2019

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: January 18, 2018

All rights reserved



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Deployed solar panels on the Soyuz spacecraft are well visible from the window of the Descent Module.


Volynov reports the successful completion of the Soyuz-5 flight to the Soviet leaders during a ceremony at Moscow airport. Behind him is his crew mate Aleksei Yeliseev