Caught on tape, and big on the Web: Searches soar on doomed cosmonaut flight

Claudine Zap

Serious space buffs probably know the name Vladimir Komarov: He was the first human fatality in space. But now a controversial  new book, "Starman," along with a blog post on NPR—have prompted popular interest and Web searches related to his story to soar.

The account involves the Russian space race in 1967 and its star, the Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin was the first human to go into outer space—where he spent a total of 108 minutes orbiting Earth. But the world at large still knows very little about the highly secretive Soviet program, or the other cosmonauts who were the program's unsung heroes.

The story of Vladimir Komarov  in "Starman" comes principally  from a single source, a KGB officer. If the account is true—and some historians are taking issue with its veracity—it is horrifying: Gagarin was a backup pilot in a doomed spacecraft called Soyuz I, which ended in a fatal crash. Komarov was a close friend of Gagarin's. He had agreed to ride in the structurally unsound capsule in order to spare Gagarin from going, even though he knew the Soyuz's flight would surely end in disaster.

Indeed, as the readers of "Starman" learn, Komarov crashed full speed into Earth, and his body turned molten on impact. Audio from the flight  records the cosmonaut  screaming and cursing the "people who had put him inside a botched spaceship."

The final words of the Russian man's last minutes were picked up on the sly in 1967 by U.S. intelligence. You can listen to the recording—in Russian—on NPR.

News of the story caused big gains in Web searches for "yuri gagarin." Lookups also increased on "yuri gagarin profile," "space race," and "cosmonaut crashed into earth crying in rage."

Of course, the former Soviet Union wasn't the only country that suffered devastating losses during the early phases of global space exploration. As Bing Quock at the California Academy of Sciences noted, "Political pressures and the intensity of the 'space race' during the late '60s led to both the U.S. and the Soviet Union taking some very dangerous risks—some of which we already know didn't go well."

Indeed, in the same year of the Soyuz I disaster in Russia, the U.S. also lost astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee when the Apollo I capsule caught fire in the midst of a pre-flight test while it was still on the launch pad. And even President Nixon kept remarks at the ready in case the first astronauts to the moon didn't make it.

"Starman" will be published on April 12.