Soyuz 11 was launched June 6, 1971
. This was the first space station
mission, completing the intended mission of Soyuz 10
. After a successful three week long mission, it ended in tragedy when the crew
were killed when their capsule depressurised
On board were cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov. Their callsign for the mission was Yantar (Amber).
They automatically rendezvoused with the station and then took over manual control with 100 metres to go. They found that there was nothing wrong with the hatch after the problems reported by the Soyuz 10 crew.
During the three weeks they were on the station they utilised the telescope, spectrometer, electrophotometer, and television that were onboard the Salyut 1. The crew checked improved on-board spacecraft systems in different conditions of flight and conducted medico-biological research. They also studied human performance under and in reaction to prolonged weightlessness.
They were unable to use the main instrument of the space station, a large solar telescope. This was because a cover that was over it to protect it during launch would not jettisoned.
The living conditions were somewhat difficult and there was even a small fire. There was also a a serious personality clash between the commander Dobrovolskiy - a rookie cosmonaut - and veteran cosmonaut Volkov. For these reasons it was decided to end the mission early, instead of going to the full 28 day length. They undocked after June 29 and prepared to reenter.
It was after the retrofire that tragedy struck. As normal they jettisoned the service and orbital module. However the 12 seperation charges fired simultaneously instead of sequentially. This extra forece caused a pressure equalisation valve to jerk loose. This valve was not meant to be opened until they were 4 km from the ground instead of 168 km. Due to lack of room in the reentry module the crew were not wearing spacesuits.
They had only 30 seconds before the pressure dropped to fatal levels. Patsayev tried to close the valve by turning a handle but only managed to get it halfway closed before he lost consciousness. This meant that they asphyxiated as their atmosphere bled into space. Within two minutes to cabin pressure was down to zero. All this was unknown to the ground who were out of radio contact.
It was not until the recovery crews reached the capsule that landed 202 km east of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan and opened the hatch on the ground that they found the crew dead. They tried in vain to resuscitate them.
As happened after the death of Vladimir Komarov the crew were given a large state funeral on July 1. Tom Stafford, a US astronaut who would later fly on the Apollo Soyuz Test Project was one of the pallbearers. Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny, Premier Alexei Kosygin, and Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev took turns standing watch as part of the honour guard.
The terrible irony was that the crew were not the original prime crew. The original prime crew of Aleksei Leonov, Valeri Kubasov and Pyotr Kolodin were bumped when it was suspected that Kubasov had contracted tuberculosis.
The crew's death caused a complete redesign of the Soyuz spacecraft. A crew space was eliminated to allow for two cosmonauts to wear spacesuits. Batteries were used instead of solar panels that had caused so many problems on Soyuz 1. Spacesuits were also mandatory during maneuvers such as launch, docking and reentry.