On April 23, 1967, the Soviet space program launched its first-ever Soyuz spacecraft with a person in it. The flight was plagued with technical problems and ended in tragedy. But 50 years later, we’re still using descendants of the Soyuz to ferry people and supplies to and from space, most notably the International Space Station. The Soyuz rocket is, by far, the most used and most reliable space launch system humans have ever built. Unfortunately the first Soyuz pilot didn’t survive.
Soyuz 1’s pilot was cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet test pilot and engineer who had previous experience in space. His voyage on the mission made him the first Soviet cosmonaut to make a second trip into space. He also became the first person to die on a space mission.
The tragedy of Soyuz 1 started with political pressure. Soviet leaders apparently wanted to celebrate Lenin’s April 22 birthday with the Soyuz launch. They were also keen to beat the Americans to the moon, and the Soyuz program was akin to NASA’s Apollo—aimed at an eventual lunar landing. Apollo was suffering, as the Apollo 1 crew had died that January on the ground in a terrible fire. If the Soviets could get Soyuz running, it would be a massive leap. Despite many technical setbacks on the ground, Soviet leaders pushed for Soyuz 1 to launch.
While cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first human in orbit) was listed…