Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Luckiest/Unluckiest Cosmonaut

     If Boris Volynov offers you a ride back to Earth from orbit, be sure to wear your seat belt.  Russian cosmonauts come from a slightly different tradition of space-traveler than NASA's astronauts, but both groups are similarly skilled, tough and resourceful.  To the extent the various space agencies can select for luck, they have.

     But Boris has been oversupplied with luck both good and bad; in 1969, he piloted Soyuz 5 on an ambitious mission, docking with Soyuz 4 and transferring two crewmen to the other vehicle. Soyuz 4, now fully crewed, reentered without incident.  Not so for Soyuz 5, with Volynov flying solo; the "equipment module" at the rear of the reentry capsule didn't disengage and he went planing in, nose-first.  There's a hatch in the nose of a Soyuz; there is no heat shield at that end and the hatch seals began to, well, melt.  As things went from worse to even worse, Volynov's luck changed: the hardware holding the equipment module burned through and eventually the automatic orientation control worked the capsule around so it was flying heat shield first.  Then bad luck returned: the parachute had taken more heat than it was designed for and only partially deployed and as the hurtling capsule approached the ground the retrorockets...didn't fire.  Wikipedia tells us this resulted in "...a hard landing which almost wrecked the module, and broke some of Volynov's teeth."

     Bear in mind that a regular Soyuz touchdown is more like a car crash than a carnival ride; what a cosmonaut calls "a hard landing," would have most people seeking other employment as soon as they stopped seeing stars.

     Not Volynov!  Undaunted, he continued with the program and in 1976, he was the pilot for a two-man crew that docked with Salyut 5, one of the military "Almaz" series.  The information available online is conflicting, but generally agrees that the mission was cut short after his partner fell ill and they had to return to Earth for treatment.  (It would appear the cause was nitric acid fumes from a propellent tank, leaking into the space station's life-support system.)

     It was not an easy return. Latches jammed on undocking and initial efforts to free the spacecraft only got it stuck, connected to but unable to redock with the space station. After an hour and a half, ground controllers worked out a release procedure and relayed it to the cosmonauts, who were finally able to unhook.  Their troubles weren't over; as they reentered, strong winds buffeted the capsule, retrorockets fired unevenly, and Volynov made another harder-than-usual landing.

     On first reading his online biography, I thought he must be the unluckiest space traveler alive but the more I consider it, the more I think he's the luckiest: on every mission, he has encountered far more trouble than most of his peers see in a lifetime -- and each time, he has survived with no more than minor injury.  That takes more than mere luck: it takes a degree of cool-headedness few men could have managed in the same circumstances.  Boris Volynov did it, twice, and lived to tell the tale.


Matthew said...

...the stars his destination.

Dave in Indiana said...

Were Soyuz capsules manufactured by Avto VAZ? It sounds like they shared the same quality control standards used on the Lada.

Roberta X said...

It's space. Stuff acts up. The Shuttle didn't have any better a record.

Dave in Indiana said...

Yeah...there was that O-ring incident....Who certified Buna-N for THAT application?

Roberta X said...

If only it was *just* the O-ring incident. Richard Feynman was on the commission that investigated that and was something of a wildcard; everyone else focused right in on the O-ring itself or the bad decision to launch in cold weather, but he cast a wider net, trying to learn how things could have gone so wrong. In *every* aspect of the Shuttle he looked into, engineers were giving 1-in-200 odds of major failure in the subsystem they were responsible for -- and their bosses were reporting 1-in-20,000 odds or even better to NASA. NASA was then assuming the engineers *had* to have designed in some "safety margin" and looking on the numbers as extremely pessimistic....

It was a clear case of too much admin control and too little engineering input. Too many layers. We're lucky the thing didn't kill more people before they shut the program down.

Odds don't concatenate. All those 1-in-200s add up to one big 1-in-200. Actual performance was *worse,* with two Shuttles lost from 135 flights. It is unlikely things would have improved without major redesign -- and NASA knew it. So did the astronauts. After Challenger, every crew member knew the odds -- and flew anyway.