It surprised me to learn this, but out of all the billions of human beings who have died since the beginning of time, only three have died off the planet Earth. Both the 1986 and 2003 space shuttle disasters occurred technically within the atmosphere, as is true with Russian space mishaps, except for one. The three people who died in space were named Vladislav Volkov, Georgy Dobrovolsky and Viktor Patsayev. They were the crew of the ill-fated mission Soyuz 11, and they died on June 30, 1971, 43 years ago today.

The story of Soyuz 11 is actually pretty sad on a number of levels. The Russians never had as good luck with their space program as we (the United States) did, and by the early 1970s they’d already lost a couple of astronauts both in space flight and in training, one of them hero Vladimir Komarov who died in 1967. Also after the failure of their N1 rocket they realized they would not beat the U.S. to the Moon. So, the Soviets went in a different direction: in April 1971 they launched Salyut 1, the first space station ever built by human beings. As with the U.S. Skylab two years later, Salyut was launched unmanned, and then would be joined by cosmonaut crews later.

The Soyuz 10 mission, which launched April 22, was the first attempt to do this. However, the three cosmonauts of this flight ran into trouble when they attempted to dock their space capsule with Salyut 1. After numerous attempts they couldn’t achieve “hard dock” and the mission controllers aborted it. Soyuz 10 landed without incident and the Soviets began working on another attempt.

On June 7, 1971, Volkov, Dobrovolsky and Patsayev blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in central Russia in their Soyuz 11 spaceship. This time the docking was successful, and when they entered the station, the three Russians became the first humans to live on a space station. Unfortunately there were problems. Sometime between April and June a short circuit had caused insulation to burn, and the air inside the station was fouled with smoke. The cosmonauts retreated to their capsule until the air recirculated. Later an electrical fire broke out, and Moscow considered canceling the rest of the mission. It was clear Salyut 1 wasn’t really up to snuff.

salyut 1

This photo of the doomed space station Salyut 1 was snapped by Viktor Patsayev as Soyuz 11 left it. He never lived to see the picture developed.

But, through their problems, the three cosmonauts stuck it out and mission controllers finally decided to bring them home on June 29. Volkov, Dobrovolsky and Patsayev climbed back into their Soyuz 11 capsule and prepared for the trip home. Everything seemed fine and there were no problems to speak of as the crew positioned their ship for re-entry. As is common with space missions, the capsule was out of radio contact with the ground during part of the re-entry phase. Oddly, however, there was no voice communication with the cosmonauts as the capsule sailed toward its parachute landing in Kazakhstan. Mission control suspected something was wrong. The capsule landed in a desolate steppe in the province of Karaganda. When the recovery team got there and popped the hatch they made a horrifying discovery: all three cosmonauts were stone dead, all with blood trickling from their noses.

What happened? An investigation discovered that a valve in the capsule’s breathing apparatus had become stuck open. It’s not clear whether the cosmonauts knew this. At 104 miles above the Earth’s surface, the Soyuz 11 capsule lost air pressure. All three of the men lost consciousness instantly, which was fortunate–none of them felt the heart attacks that killed them 40 seconds later. A small faulty seal, buried deep in the intricate workings of the ship, spelled doom for the crew.

The deaths of the three cosmonauts also spelled doom for Salyut 1. At first the Soviet space authorities boosted it into a higher orbit while they redesigned the Soyuz craft, hoping they could launch another team up there before the space station ran out of air and power. They didn’t make it. Realizing the station was going to go dark before anyone else could get there, the Russians fired its engines for the last time on October 11, 1971, propelling it into a lower orbit. Salyut 1 burned up a few hours later over the Pacific Ocean, and unlike Skylab nothing was left to reach the surface.

The three cosmonauts who died were cremated and their ashes interred at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, the holiest of holies for Bolshevik heroes. They also each had a Moon crater named after them. While little-remembered outside Russia today, Volkov, Dobrovolsky and Patsayev are part of the short but sad list of people who died in the service of space exploration…and they remain the only human beings who have ever actually died in space.