Friday, April 1, 2011

Freaky Friday: A Cosmonaut’s Tale

Space travel has always been one of my biggest interests. As long as I can remember, I’ve hoped that commercial space travel would be attainable in my life. The thought of leaving this planet, even just to attain orbit has been a dream of mine since I was a child. Hell, I would have settled for space camp, but that was just a bit out of reach due to expenses.

I’m not sure if there is a larger, grander idea than to travel to other planets; to rip our species from the confines of limited resources and the threat of premature extinction. It is a noble cause, and one that has been rife with sacrifice. Test pilots of various types have perished; the crew members of Apollo 1 met their demise on the launch pad. No one will forget that our shuttles have ripped apart in the atmosphere. If my numbers are accurate, 28 men and women have fallen trying to reach the stars. While that number may not seem catastrophic in comparison to many of mankind’s endeavors, only around 500 people have made it to space.

One story in particular, which is coming out in a book called Starman by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, recounts the tail of cosmonaut named Vladimir Kamarov. Some of you may have read about him in the past, but let me recount it if you haven’t.

In 1967, Russia and its satellite nations were engaged in a space race with the United States. This was a supplement to the Cold War (and in my opinion, one of the few incredible things to come from the Cold War), which was pretty much a dick swinging competition between over arms and technological superiority. You all know about this, so I won’t go into the political details there, only the ones surrounding this mission.

For the 50th anniversary of the Communist Revolution in Russia, they planned to have Mr. Kamarov take the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz into orbit, dock with another craft, and then come home. It might not have been the most technical feet these days, but it was groundbreaking at the time.

The only problem, Kamarov, and his best friend, the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, knew that this was a doomed mission from the outset. Upon prior inspection of the craft, they found more than 200 mechanical faults in the spacecraft. This included parachutes that would not open upon reentry. When they tried to bring this to the attention of their superiors, everyone who saw the memo was either demoted, or sent to Siberia to freeze to death. This mission was a matter of national pride, and was going to happen no matter what.

Faced with certain death, Kamarov chose to pilot this mission. He did this to save his friend Yuri, who was already a Russian hero, and would have been his replacement if he backed out. I’m sure had he backed out from this, he would have been sent to Siberia as well, but it was the friendship that caused him to strap into that capsule, and rocket into the great beyond.

As expected, mechanical failures started happening right away. The launch of the craft he was supposed to dock with was cancelled, and he was left orbiting the earth. United States radio towers were listening in as the Soviet told mission control that he was going to die. The Soviet Premier at the time called him in tears to tell him that he was a hero, and then Kamarov spoke to his wife for the last time, trying to find the words to tell his children.

When the decent began, over the radio, Kamarov shouted that heat in the capsule was rising, and that they had killed him, cursing the engineers as he plummeted toward the earth. He went screeching into the earth, the capsule nearly liquefying on impact. They only found a heel bone in the remains.

Now imagine the terror of certain death smiling at you as your strap yourself into the capsule, knowing that this was your last ride. Defying all sense and logic, he pierced the heavens and accepted his fate. He saw the earth with his own eyes in a way that nearly all humans can only dream of.

Vladimir Kamarov showed noble bravery in keeping his friend out of that rocket, but the pride of a nation murdered him. With this book, maybe his sacrifice can mean something more than a failed space mission 44 years ago. It might be more than the terrifying experience, but a tale of a man laying his life down for a friend.

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