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Soyuz 11

For the people of the Soviet Union, Soyuz 11 was a novelty. State media provided regular updates on the space mission, which was rare. It even showed TV broadcasts of the three cosmonauts showing off some plants they were growing, and celebrating a birthday with prune paste and presents of an onion and a lemon.

Pride in the mission turned to grief, though, when Soyuz 11 returned to Earth. When recovery forces opened the hatch 50 years ago yesterday, all three cosmonauts were dead.

Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev had launched on June 6, 1971. They docked with the first space station, Salyut 1. They spent a record three weeks aboard the station. They operated a telescope, observed Earth, and conducted secret experiments for the military.

When their work was done, they packed up for home. They separated their Soyuz capsule from the station, then split off their reentry module for the plunge through the atmosphere. No one knew it at the time, but that part of the process went horribly wrong. A valve opened and let the air escape into space. The cabin was too cramped for the cosmonauts to wear spacesuits, so they died in seconds.

The automated landing system worked well, though, and Soyuz 11 touched down as expected. Recovery forces quickly reached the capsule, but heard nothing from the crew. When they opened the hatch, they found the cosmonauts dead — a tragic end to a record-breaking stay in space.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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