It was April 1967, and Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was in a tough position. He was about to be launched into space aboard the Soyuz 1 rocket. Ordinarily, it was an opportunity a cosmonaut would be willing to kill for. But Komarov knew that the Soyuz 1 was likely doomed. The Soyuz mission would be complex, requiring the craft to rendezvous with another craft in orbit to transfer crew by spacewalk before returning to Earth. Even in the best circumstances, it would test the limits of the craft and the cosmonauts. And the Soyuz 1 was hardly the best craft to do it in.
There were already rumors that the Soyuz was in bad shape. The most recent test flight of the craft had been a miserable disaster. A malfunction with the ship’s escape system had triggered a massive explosion on the launch pad, obliterating the craft. Had the test been manned, any cosmonaut on board would have died instantly. It was clear to everyone involved in the launches that the craft wasn’t ready for any sort of mission. But the higher-ups ignored these potential problems and demanded that the launch go forward.
After all, Lenin’s birthday was coming up. And what better way to celebrate than for the communist state he left behind to send a man into space? More importantly, the Soviets were in a race with the Americans to reach the moon. The Space Race had come to embody the entirety of the Cold War, as both sides competed to see which system was more capable of dominating space. So far the Soviets were winning. Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, had been the first man to ever leave the Earth in 1961. Reacting to the Soviet success, the Americans had vowed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The Soyuz mission was vital to the Soviet plan to beat them there. There could be no delays. The launch was scheduled for April 23, 1967. Komarov was tapped to man the craft, while Gagarin was slated to be the backup pilot. But Gagarin was a national hero. He was a symbol of the success of the communist system. There was no way that any of his superiors would risk his life in a questionable launch. Gagarin knew that. According to a Pravda journalist who claimed to be on the scene, Gagarin tried to muscle his way on to the flight at the last minute.
His motivation, according to former KGB agent Venyamin Russayev who claimed to know Gagarin personally, was to get the flight scrapped and save Komarov’s life. According to Russayev, Komarov and Gagarin were friends, and Komarov had already insisted that Gagarin wasn’t to take his place on the flight. It’s believable given that the two were known to be close. However, some historians have pointed out that this incident was unlikely and that Russayev, in particular, isn’t a reliable source. Like many of the details that people often cite surrounding the case, this incident should be taken with a grain of salt. But whatever else happened on the launch pad, we do know that Komarov eventually boarded the craft and prepared to take off into space.