Soyuz T10-A: Six Seconds From Fiery Oblivion

"We could feel the booster swaying from side to side. Then there was a
sudden vibration and a jerking sensation as the LES activated
- Cosmonaut Vladimir Titov

Call me an overgrown middle schooler, but the upcoming installments of two of my favorite series - Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and For All Mankind Season 2 - are set in the Cold War backdrop of the 1980s, so I wanted this week's Astronomical Returns post to draw from that decade as well! An ill-fated Soyuz launch from 37 years ago immediately came to mind, a nearly colossal disaster barely heard of in the West. On September 26, 1983, Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov found themselves strapped to the booster of the Soyuz T-10A mission as a series of mishaps and technical failures unfolded beneath them, sparking a massive rocket-fuel fed fire that set the launchpad ablaze. As a kid, one of my favorite shows was National Geographic's Seconds From Disaster; these two unfortunate souls suddenly found themselves to be the epitome of that moniker

Commander Titov (left) and Flight Engineer Strekalov (right) in their Sokol spacesuits

Some background on the mission: in the decade following the US's celebrated Apollo moon landings, the Russians focused their efforts on increasingly advanced space stations to support long duration stays in Earth orbit. After several station failures, along with the inflight fatalities of the Soyuz 11 crew in 1971, the Salyut 6 station had proven to be quite successful, supporting multiple crews from 1977-1981, and it was quickly followed up with the launch of Salyut 7 in 1982. Titov and Strekalov's intended mission was to fly to Salyut 7 and replace the current crew of Vladimir Lyakhov and Alexander Alexandrov, who had already been in orbit for several months

Salyut 7 as seen from orbit. I think that's an unmanned Progress spacecraft docked on the right

On the evening of the launch, everything seemed well as the Soyuz-U rocket proceeded towards countdown, but at T-minus 90 seconds, a bad valve in the RD-117 engine allowed pressurized nitrogen into the fuel turbopump (the mechanism that pumps fuel into the rocket's combustion chamber) too early, spinning it up even though there was no RP-1 (kerosene) present yet. The turbopump quickly exceeded its structural limits and ruptured, causing a massive RP-1 leak that ignited on the launchpad. Launch control watched the blaze in absolute horror and immediately tried to activate the launch escape tower to detach the crew capsule and pull them to safety, but the fire had already burned through the ground command lines and severed the connection to the rocket! Meanwhile, the cosmonauts themselves were totally helpless. They felt unusual vibrations and knew something was wrong, but they couldn't see much outside their capsule, and even if they did, they had no way of initiating an abort themselves. All Titov and Strekalov could do was tighten their seat restraints in preparation for the high-G abort that they hoped would save them in time

Fire engulfing the launchpad. The cosmonauts are at the top of the rocket where the red arrow is pointing.
Top right shows an RD-117 engine like the one that caused the failure

Fortunately, Soviet launch control had one more trick up their sleeve: a radio operated command that could remotely ignite the launch escape tower and yank the cosmonauts away from explosive doom. It required two independent operators, in different rooms of a building 20 miles away, to input separate commands within 5 seconds of each other (a fail-safe to prevent accidental aborts). This time, it was Launch Director Alexei Shumilin and Soyuz Chief Designer Alexander Soldatenkov, and by the time they'd received the code word "Dnestr", and hit the abort buttons, another 10 seconds had passed and the rocket was almost completely on fire. Once they finally did, the escape tower's pyrotechnics blasted Titov and Strekalov 3,000 feet into the air, briefly subjecting them to a crushing 14Gs before parachuting about 4 miles downrange from the launchpad. Just 6 seconds after the cosmonauts got away, the entire rocket exploded

Sorry for the bad quality, but hey this is decades-old Soviet footage! Source: YouTube

It took half an hour for recovery teams to find Titov and Strekalov, but they were in good condition and only needed cigarettes and some vodka to calm their nerves after their harrowing brush with death. Though the Soviets didn't openly admit the launch failure, American KH-11 reconnaissance planes saw the resulting damage to the pad, and Western media immediately began speculating that the two cosmonauts currently on Salyut 7, Lyakhov and Alexandrov, might be stranded since they had exceeded the 100 day orbit life of the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station at the time. Thankfully, their spacecraft turned out to be flight-worthy and they were able to return to Earth after an extended 150 day mission

The iconic image of the Soviet launch controllers nonchalantly watching the Soyuz T10-A abort

Titov and Strekalov would go on to fly several more missions for the Soviet and subsequent Russian space program, both to Salyut 7 and later on Space Shuttle flights as part of the American collaboration on the Russian Mir space station. Years later, Commander Titov stated that as soon as their escape system fired on Soyuz T10-A, they immediately had to turn off the spacecrafts cockpit voice recorder. They were belting out profanities the whole way up and down!

No comments