Bulgaria’s First Cosmonaut and the Near-Disaster of Soyuz 33

14.06.2012 § 1 Comment


Since the late 1950’s, the USSR and the United States have been grappling for space supremacy. Many know and speak of the heroic chapters in this struggle, the milestones each nation achieved, and the disasters it had to endure when testing the boundaries of space. To this day, 2% of the vehicles launched in space have killed their crew, and many disasters have been narrowly averted. The US has had the benefit of an ocean to splash down into and the use of multi-launch vehicles, while the Soviet and Russian space program has been landing on hard ground in the Siberian steppes.

America has lost 14 astronauts: seven in the Challenger disaster during liftoff in 1986 and seven in the Columbia shuttle reentry in 2003. The Russian space program, in contrast, has so far lost only four: Vladimir Komarov, commander of Soyuz 1, whose main parachute failed to open on reentry in 1967, and the three-man crew of Soyuz 11, killed by depressurization during re-entry in 1971. Add to the list of fatalities the death of three astronauts in the launchpad fire on Apollo 1 (also in the ill-fated 1967), several test flight deaths (including that of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin), and a couple of very, very close calls.

Apollo 13 Service Module, with visible damage from the explosion

One such close call , very well-known to the world, was the Apollo 13 lunar mission that launched on April 11, 1970, suffered an on-board explosion and was returned to Earth by a very narrow margin against incredible odds. Because of America’s policy on publicizing space launches, the near-tragedy was known to the entire world before its safe conclusion had been reached, and it became a “successful failure” that caused a collective sigh of relief.

In contrast, the former USSR kept its space-launching cards pretty close to the chest, staying relatively tight-lipped about launches until they were successful, going as far as to be accused of covering up failed launches by erasing the existence of cosmonauts from their training rosters. While these allegations have so far proven to be urban myths, the USSR was in fact tight-lipped for years about a very close call of its own.

The Soyuz 33 Mission

As part of the Intercosmos program, the Soviet Space Agency was recruiting cosmonauts from Eastern Bloc nations, flying them  into space alongside Soviet cosmonauts to build up their national pride and to publicize the international focus of its space program. After Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany, it was Bulgaria’s turn in 1979. One of its four chosen cosmonaut trainees would become the ambassador of Bulgaria as the sixth nation in space.

Soyuz 33 mission patch

The mission was fairly straightforward: the spacecraft, named Soyuz 33 (“Union 33”) would launch, rendez-vous and dock in orbit with Soviet space station Salyut 6 and its two cosmonauts would spend seven days conducting experiments alongside the two cosmonauts in the station. The first civilian in space, Soviet engineer Nikolai Rukavishnikov would command the mission, with Bulgarian cosmonaut Georgi Ivanov responsible for the experiments on board.

Soyuz 33 launched from the Gagarin’s Start launch pad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan without incident on April 10, 1979, almost nine years to the day after Apollo 13. Bulgaria had joined the ranks of the space-conquering nations. Six hours into the seven-day mission, however, things started to go wrong.

Ivanov (centre) and Rukavishnikov

The Disaster

As the spacecraft was approaching the station, its main engine shut off, 3 seconds into a planned 6-second burn. After the vibrations had subsided, it was restarted and a second burn was attempted, which was also cut short by a failsafe gauge in the engine. On the second attempt the cosmonauts inside the Salyut 6 station noticed an odd lateral glow emanating from the engine bell of Soyuz 33. Rukavishnikov, a trained flight engineer, quickly deduced that the failsafe was not faulty and the main engine was likely flaring out, putting the craft in danger of explosion. A part that had been tested over 8000 times had failed, in space, becoming the first orbital engine failure in manned spacecraft history.

After rapid deliberation during which the spaceship and the station were continuously drifting apart, it was decided that it was too dangerous to attempt to dock with Salyut 6. Even if successful, the station would have to sustain the lives of four astronauts, with only another Soyuz craft (the same model as the ailing Soyuz 33, with potentially the same weak engine) serving as a possible return vehicle. It was also determined that the capsule could not keep its two-man crew alive long enough for its orbit to decay naturally – Rukavishnikov and Ivanov had enough supplies for 5 days, which was about half the time they needed.

The crew’s only chance of survival was to fire the small backup reentry engine on Soyuz 33, which was untested and located very close to the faulty main engine. If it had also been breached, igniting it could spell doom for the first Bulgarian cosmonaut and his Soviet counterpart. Once it was fired, it had to burn for a very specific amount of time to hit the narrow re-entry corridor for the spacecraft. If it burned for fewer than 90 seconds, the ship would skip out of the atmosphere and plunge into outer space, dooming the men on board. If it burned for more than 188 seconds at full power, it would re-enter the atmosphere at too steep an angle, burning up if its heat shield failed or falling too quickly for the parachutes on board to slow it down to a successful touchdown in the Russian steppes. For the first time in the history of the Soyuz program, and like Apollo 13 before it, the damage to the spacecraft was so severe that it put into question the very lives of the cosmonauts on board. On April 11, the following message was relayed to Mission Control:

“The chances of recovering the cosmonauts alive are very slim. We must mentally prepare for the worst.”

The Burn

On April 12 Rukavishnikov was instructed to start the backup engine. It was set to retrofire, slowing the spacecraft down just enough to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. No one knew how much thrust the engine would be able to sustain and for how long. He pushed the button and the engine came to life, silent in the stillness of space. It ran for 90, then 120, then 180 seconds. Seeing that the engine was not stopping automatically, Rukavishnikov shut it off manually at 213 seconds, still unsure of just how much thrust it had supplied.

In the radio silence that followed, pale and resolute, Rukavishnikov turned to Ivanov and said:

“Look at that speck of dust. If it starts drifting towards the floor, we’ll live.”

The two men, locked in a metal box a little larger than a phone booth, stared at the speck expectantly. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, it sailed down towards the floor. With a sigh of relief, they strapped themselves into their seats and prepared for reentry. But with the fear of drifting off into space now allayed, there was still the nature of their reentry. After a few tense moments, Rukavishnikov relayed to Mission Control:

“The engine burned for 213 seconds…We’re coming down on a ballistic trajectory.”

Everyone at Mission Control knew what that meant. Since the first days of space exploration, spacecraft had been designed to use its shape to create some lift, maintaining its descent at a bearable acceleration in what was called a gliding trajectory. The Soyuz system was designed for just such a reentry. In contrast, the ballistic trajectory that the Soyuz 33 backup engine had burned towards was steeper, did not rely on the shape of the craft and could result in acceleration of 8-10 G’s (8-10 times the acceleration due to gravity on Earth that we are accustomed to) and a potential breach of the craft’s heat shield. Essentially, instead of redirecting itself to fall to Earth in a gentle(r) spiral, it had effectively stopped in mid-air, plunging straight down.

The force of gravity that began as a gentle draw on a speck of dust became a roaring pull, sending the ship plummeting towards Earth, the rapidly compressing air in front of it heating it up immensely, turning it into a fireball through the night sky.

According to the ship’s telemetry, Ivanov’s pulse never rose above 74 beats per minute, even when he and Rukavishnikov endured deorbit acceleration of almost 10 G’s. As their bodies were being crushed against their seats, the two men took deep, struggling breaths and held them, speaking little. During reentry, a very worried mission commander Alexei Eliseev was constantly asking:

“Saturn (the Soyuz-33 callsign), how are you feeling? Tell us, what is the situation?!”

At one point, with 6.5 G’s on his chest, Ivanov is said to have exclaimed:

“Be quiet, we’re at 6 G’s here!”

Soyuz 33’s parachutes opened and the spacecraft landed safely, 350 km off-target, and the two cosmonauts were recovered, shaken but alive.

Georgi Ivanov
(Source: Space Facts)

Years later, Ivanov described his prophetic feelings during the launch:

“Around the portholes flames were flaring, initially slowly and gently, then faster and more intensely. They fluttered and ran, long and sharp, thick and evil, pulsing. Their colour was constantly changing and I had the feeling that a volcano was raging outside. I shivered. There are so many things in this world that cannot be described…It’s scary, being face to face with such a sight – it’s scary, prompting thoughts of life, not death. You want to live, to live…”

And live he did, enjoying a hero’s welcome in Bulgaria.

Media Blackout and Propaganda Fail

Interestingly enough, the exact details of the life-and-death struggle of Soyuz 33 were veiled in secrecy for over seven years, with some details only coming to light in 1986. The mission was subject to all the media restrictions, blackouts and propaganda spinning common to the Soviet space program. In fact, days before the launch Georgi Ivanov (whose original last name was Kakalov, sharing a root with the Russian word for “poop”) was forced to formally adopt his patronymic in order to fly. When the cosmonauts returned to Earth, the reason for their unsuccessful docking was cited as “a technical glitch”, leaving the impression that the docking apparatus had failed, launching a myriad jokes about Soviet technical proficiency but never hinting at the real danger to the cosmonauts’ lives.

The cover of “Bulgarian Warrior”, April 1979

Not only that, but Soyuz 33 caused a home-grown media gaffe in Bulgaria. On April 11, the day the docking with Salyut 6 was supposed to take place, an issue of the magazine Български Воин (“Bulgarian Warrior”) was printed, entirely devoted to the mission. Originally, two versions of the factual article describing the docking were prepared – one in case of success and one in case of failure. However, an overzealous editor, seeing the success of the launch, approved the printing of the magazine with the successful version in it a few hours too early. The magazine was already on the stands, proclaiming the successful docking and hand-shaking and gift-exchanging of the Soyuz 33 and the Salyut 6 crews when news came through from Moscow that the docking had never taken place. Almost all copies of the magazine were hastily recalled and destroyed, to the point that for decades not even the National Library had a copy of the ill-fated issue. However, individual units survived, squirrelled away here and there, and recently even an almost complete digital scan has come to light.

Alexander Alexandrov

Bulgaria got a second chance at a successful space mission when Soyuz 33 backup crewmember Alexander Alexandrov flew with two Soviet cosmonauts on the Soyuz TM-5 mission to the Mir space station in 1988, spending just under 10 days in space. And now that the media blackout has been lifted, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief that the ill-fated April-launched voyage of Soyuz 33 ended happily for its two brave cosmonauts, Nikolai Rukavishnikov and Georgi Ivanov, the first Bulgarian in space.

UPDATE: The Soyuz-33 reentry capsule, as well as Ivanov’s flight suit and lots of other gear is on display at the Krumovo Aviation Museum outside Plovdiv.


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