Soyuz 5 launched January 15, 1969 and performed the first docking between two manned spacecraft when it docked with Soyuz 4. Also performed was the first crew transfer. And to top it all off, Boris Volynov, the sole cosmonaut on board Soyuz 5 for reentry experienced one of the scariest reentries ever survived.

At launch also on board were Aleksei Yeliseyev and Yevgeni Khrunov who transferred to the Soyuz 4 spacecraft after the docking. They reentered with Vladimir Shatalov perfectly.

However things were not so simple for Volynov. The Soyuz spacecraft consists of three modules, with the reentry module being between the service and orbital modules. For reentry these two are jettisoned after the retrofire. However for some reason on Soyuz 5 the service module did not jettison.

Volynov heard the explosive bolts fire but when he looked out the window he could still the see the antennae that protuded from the service module. At this stage he was travelling across the southern Atlantic towards Russia. He reported the situation to the tracking ship who passed on the news to the control centre. It was realised very soon that there was little that could be done. The heat shield was at the bottom of the reentry module, still covered by the service module. Unshielded portions of the vehicle would now be exposed to the 5,000°C heat of atmospheric entry. This would destroy the entire capsule and its pilot.

Like any good military officer, Volynov continued to perform his set tasks, writing in his logbook and reporting his situation to the ground. The spacecraft began to tumble as it tried to seek an aerodymanically stable position. It found this in the worst possible orientation - the hatch of the reentry module forward. There was only an inch of shielding on this surface, while it was expected during a nominal reentry that three inches would be burnt off.

Volynov began to hear the now overheated fuel tanks in the service module exploding and the hatch began to buckle inwards due to the pressure of the shock wave in front of him. He wasn't wearing a spacesuit and so could feel the heat of reentry against his skin. He was straining against the restraints which were designed for the completely opposite direction he was now being forced. All this time he could see through the window into what he though was the last thing he would see but he couldn't force himself to look away.

The rubber seal on the hatch began to smoke. As flames seared his cabin walls, he watched as smoke from the singed insulation filled the descent module. When he thought he only had seconds left to live he tore the freshly written pages of his logbook in his pockets hoping that they could somehow survive the disintergration of the spacecraft.

But then a miracle happened. Whatever had been holding the reentry and service modules together servered. The reentry module began to tumble violently. By some chance it reached the right orientation of heat shield forward. Volynov was thankful for the designers who had used strong titanium frame which helped the airlock hold out against the onslaught of the superheated plasma. The spacecraft continued on a 9 G ballistic trajectory.

He now realised that his parachutes could have been damaged by the heat of reentry. Also he had no fuel left to stabalise the capsule so he was spinning something that could tangle the parachute lines. Fortuntely his parachutes deployed and though the capsule's spin did tangle the shroud lines and partially close the canopy, the parachute slowed the descent.

The impact caused his restraints to break flinging him across the cabin, breaking several of his front teeth. This was the least of his worries. It was -38°C outside and he was 2000 km short of the normal landing site in northern Kazakhstan. He was in the Ural Mountains 2 km southwest of Kustani near Orenburg, Russia. And he was wearing little more than overalls.

He got out of the capsule and walked a few kilometres towards a distant vertical line of smoke in the sky. He had landed just before noon, and the weather was clear. He found a hut of peasants who took him in and kept him warm. The searchers arrived many hours later and followed his footprints to the hut.

It was then decided that all this should be kept a state secret. Volynov was ordered not to tell the story. It was not until to 1997, when an new history book briefly mentioned the incident that the story was revealed. It was then that fuller newspaper accounts appeared.


  • http://www.astronautix.com/flights/soyuz5.htm
  • http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soyuz_5
  • http://www.jamesoberg.com/062002flightjournalsoyuz5.html
  • http://www.zarya.info/Diaries/Soyuz4-5/Index.htm
  • http://www.spacefacts.de/mission/english/soyuz-5.htm

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