A Demon Aboard Salyut 1
On April 22, 1971, the crew of the Soyuz 10 launched from Garagin's Start launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a sprawling space center in a cleared region in Kazakhstan. Three days prior, the Salyut 1 Orbiting Space Station successfully achieved orbit. It was a tubular module not unlike many of the satellites launched in previous years, but with one distinct difference: it was built to be inhabited.
The three cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz 10, once they broke through the Earth's atmosphere and achieved the proper trajectory, established a soft dock using the probe and drogue interface. Once in place, however, they were unable to hard dock with the station. Despite repeated attempts, they finally reported that technical difficulties had prevented them from establishing a way to climb aboard Salyut 1, by way of the Station's rear docking collar. Frustrated and dispirited, they began preparations for disconnect and descent.
|The heroic crew of the Soyuz 11|
On June 6, 1971, the crew of the Soyuz 11 succeeded where their predecessor had failed. Three heroic and capable cosmonauts - Georgi Dobrovol'skiy, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev - launched from the Garagin's Start. They established orbit and successfully docked with the Salyut 1. After successfully docking, the three climbed aboard and immediately recoiled. The stale air inside the chamber had gone smoky and smelled of burned wire and ozone. Some of the wall panels in the flimsy interior looked as if they had disintegrated Stunned and panicked, the three activated the ventilation systems and climbed back aboard their craft for the next day, hoping for the best.
When the air was clear enough for habitation, the cosmonauts climbed back into the cramped space - taking measurements, taping up panels that had fallen haphazardly across the cabin floor, setting up scanning equipment, and generally keeping busy. Patsayev operated the Orion 1 Space Observatory near the rear of the craft, becoming the first cosmonaut to use a telescope in space. There was a lingering sense of urgency among the three, but they continued their work in relative silence. Every so often the air valves made long, rasping noises like breathing behind the flimsy walls. Sometimes, mechanical devices whirred and clanked when it seemed clear that nothing should be making the noise.
By day seven, it was clear to the crew of the Soyuz 11 that the Salyut 1 was a truly fragile satellite. Any forceful movement caused the entire interior to vibrate. It was disconcerting to the cosmonauts, because when the craft shook, it felt to them like the hand of God trying to shake them out into space, or heavy footsteps somewhere beyond the flimsy walls. It felt as though the whole station had a life of its own and might break apart with the slightest provocation. It became difficult for the cosmonauts to concentrate on anything but the cold vacuum just outside the insulated walls of the cramped space they inhabited. The long, rasping sounds of the air valves continued.
|The interior of the Salyut 1 Space Station|
After twenty two long days in orbit, the three cosmonauts returned to the orbital module and proceeded to separate from the Salyut 1. During exit procedures, the bolts holding the service module to the descent module were set to fire sequentially, allowing for a controlled separation. Unfortunately, the bolts all fired at once, for reasons unknown, and the resulting disruption loosened an air valve seal, immediately sucking all the air from the cabin. All three cosmonauts asphyxiated and died almost immediately, but sadly, their deaths were not discovered until their module was cracked open back on the ground in Kazakhstan.
What wasn't widely known at the time is that the Salyut designation - including the redesigns that followed, were actually covers for Almaz - a covert military designation overriding the scientific,"civilian" Salyut space stations. What is also not widely known is that the two trips to the doomed Salyut 1 were not the first to reach the Station.
Few know about lone wolf, the top secret expedition to the Salyut.
Lone Wolf left Earth on June 20th, just one day after the successful launch of the Salyut 1 and two days prior to the Soyuz 10's failed mission. This secret launch set out 250 miles northwest of Garagin's Start. Only a few peasants saw the fiery trail in the sky. The KGB, covering their tracks as usual, reported a failed launch and nothing more. The craft that freed itself from its earthly moors that day - from a barren test area just south of Zhezkazgan - was actually not a failed launch. It was a manned craft named the одинокий волк, or 'lone wolf.'
|This is the actual view from Soyuz 11, gazing up at the Space Station Salyut 1|
The cosmonaut aboard the wolf was a high ranking bureaucrat named Dmitri Olivski. He was a lanky and undeveloped, wispy man who wore thick glasses and a large, bushy mustache that he dyed regularly. Olivski rose in the ranks as a paper pusher for the newly formed KBG in the early 1950s. Olivski also helped jump start the Almaz program, and when it came time for an agent to manually monitor transmissions from space, he volunteered over the objections of almost everyone in the Space Program. His subordinates were all terrified of him, so Olivski bullied his way into the mission. As he saw it, the secrets he kept were simply not worthy of any mere cosmonaut. He would go and do the job himself, and that was the end of that.
Olivski was not suited for space. The Soviet Space program strapped him into its human centrifuge, and oxygen deprived him, but they low-balled him at every turn. They were all afraid of pushing Olivski's brutal temper to the limit, so they rushed through vital parts of his training. Olivski spent far more time choosing his special star and dagger insignia than he did learning operation procedures.
On June 20th, on a barren stretch of scrub land near where the A-17 exists today, a small team of special handlers stepped toward the secret launch pad with a would-be cosmonaut in their midst. The large suit swallowed the small bureaucrat's tiny frame when he stepped inside of it. He clutched a large dark briefcase and cuffed it to his left hand, where it hung from his suit like a large shopping tag. The lone wolf's rocket system was itself a dark, angular contraption, somewhat different from other crafts in the SSP, but no less impressive.
Once inside, Olivski began to sweat profusely. Over the comm, his sharp voice barked orders out to the crew. If anything, and he meant anything, went wrong on this trip, he would blame them, and as soon as he came back to earth, heads would roll. It may have just been his fear talking, but Dmitri would never have admitted it. He even refused assistance beyond the usual protocols. Once the countdown began, and the sound and vibration overwhelmed him, he began to have second thoughts. Had the Salyut Station reached optimal orbit? Would he remember how to operate the Wolf?
G-forces pummeled Olivski inside of his suit. The training had exposed him to no more than 1 G, but now, strapped into his chair and practically upside down, forces close to 3 G flattened him against the seat. Through the stained window of his helmet, he caught sight of the instruments - too many flashing lights. What is wrong, he thought. Do I click a switch? He felt something sharp against his wrist. It was the cuffed briefcase dragging his left arm down. Its vital secrets and plans ensured the Soviets' dominance over surveillance from space.
The roar of the engine soon subsided, and was a constant stream of noise, like a wave forever cresting. There was no porthole of any kind inside the lone wolf, only rows of instruments and circuitry flanked by big brown and green panels. Mr. Olivski had no imagination for space travel. He could not, for instance, imagine that just outside, a vast stretch of blue covered all of existence, and a hazy dim light above signified an empty void, a place where the newly launched Salyut 1 waited for him. What Olivski also didn't know was that his myopic imagination - his obsession with forms and drafts and secrets and spy games - would soon be challenged.
|The Salyut program paved the way for today's International Space Station|
The lone wolf edged in behind the Salyut 1, and this harsh light glimmered off the small particles of metal that floated off the two crafts like glitter as they joined. Olivski gradually adjusted the controls so that the air flow would equalize inside the transfer compartment. He flicked most of the switches he'd been instructed to hit but missed two vital ones. The first switch he forgot was supposed to re-establish contact with the ground crew and the second regulated air pressure between the wolf's valves and those inside the space station.
As Olivski opened the hatch, he was still unaware of what he'd forgotten. He floated through the 3 meter diameter space into the transfer compartment. "Ya priyakhal!" he boasted into his mouthpiece, unaware that no one on the ground could hear him. Beyond the white metal collar of the docking bay, he saw the rectangular interior of the Salyut. He simply wasn't aware that ground control could not hear him. He was also blissfully unaware of his failure to regulate the air flow properly, even as he shut the hatch and sailed into the large rectangular chamber. In those moments, he felt like the most important man in the world.
"Ya priyekhal." the bureaucrat cosmonaut repeated into his helmet. He un-cuffed the briefcase and set it aside, and removed the bulky cosmonaut suit. He set that aside, and then turned to the hatch to push the swivel lever inward, as he'd been instructed. Unfortunately, Olivski's failure to normalize air pressure caused the oxygen to run outward into the orbital module. In the mere moments between the cosmonaut's arrival and his removal of the suit, a dangerous level of air pressure had begun to build up inside the Wolf valves. When Olivski pressed the lever, there was a horrible explosive crack from beyond the wall, and a sound like a giant claw scraping along the back end of the Salyut.
|The air valves leading into the orbital module|
The air pressure building inside the Wolf had created an oxygen rich air bomb just waiting for the final release valve on the hatch to close. In an explosion of gas and particulates, the Wolf burst away from the hard collar seal of the Salyut 1 and spiraled silently out into space, in an uncontrolled trajectory, effectively trapping Olivski aboard the Space Station.
The skeleton ground crew near Zhezkazgan knew none of this. They still waited for Olivski to re-establish communication. They checked readings on the Salyut's lock mechanisms and scrambled about, scribbling down notes and making calculations. Based on their readings, the Lone Wolf should have arrived at the Salyut 1. The locking mechanisms on the station showed no signs of a connection, and the readings from the Wolf showed it on an uncontrolled trajectory. The could only conclude that Dmitri Olivski had not reached his destination, and that the lone wolf had broken from orbit and was now spiraling out into space.
Olivski grew more frantic as he realized that his comm didn't work. He was furious, and through the porthole, he spotted a faint glimmer off in the distance, in the dark - the wolf. He was trapped aboard the Salyut. Even worse, it was already getting difficult to breathe.
His failure to properly vent the air valves had resulted in a terrible buildup of toxic fumes. Within just a few hours, Olivski, clutching his space suit like a teddy bear, began to slowly lose his mind. The gases had reached the nerve centers of his brain. He put the suit back on and began to climb the walls like an orphaned primate, gnashing his teeth and climbing down along the wall to gaze out the porthole at the deep blue of the Adriatic sea far below. His addled mind told him that he could reach earth if he just jumped from the Salyut, so he put on his helmet and began trying to open the door. He only succeeded in disabling some of the lock mechanisms.
The Soyuz 10 arrived on April 22, just two days later. The frantic Olivski saw the craft approach from the porthole. I am saved, he thought. They have come for me and I am saved. He pounded on the tempered material of the porthole. He clawed his hands along the wall. He felt the vibration as the probe and drogue made contact. Any second now. They're coming. Inside of his frenzied brain, Olivski cheered. No longer trapped here, he thought. I will force them to take me back to Earth immediately, and then, heads will roll.
Unfortunately, we already know that the Soyuz 10 did not establish hard dock with the Station that day. Olivski made no contact with the vessel at all, except for inadvertently venting some the toxic fumes into the Soyuz 10, the same fumes that caused Nikolai Rukavishnikov to lose consciousness during descent.
Soyuz 11 would not arrive for another six weeks. Olivski was not even aware of this. He subsisted on the meager foodstuffs available to him on the Station. He should have wasted away, but nothing beats the obstinate stubbornness of a bureaucrat. He drank sparingly from the water reserves, even as his cheeks grew dark with stubble and his eyes went dull and began to spin in his skull. He tried forcing the hatch open several times, to no avail. He would gaze out the porthole at the vacuum outside, at the bright, cold light of space. He missed the warm wood paneling of his office, the lime green plastic chairs in the lobby, the stacks of ordered paper on the desks.
He started thinking more and more about paper. Paper was life; it ran the world. Without paper, no order, no hierarchy. Paper was life. Paper was food. He began to eat the paper, and crunched on it until it became gluey pulp in his mouth. Olivski swallowed gratefully.
Each time he gazed out the porthole it looked as though the Earth got further and further away. Panic seized Olivski's crazed mind. His cheeks grew thinner with the lack of food. He kept the cosmonaut suit on, and yelled into his inoperable comm at some imaginary ground crew far below on some imaginary earth, some place where they might want to rescue him. This was their plan all along, he thought. To get rid of me.
In futile attempts to get outside, he tore down pieces of the wall panelling. Behind it, he found a crawl space, a place where wires intersected with electrically charged panels. He poked around in the walls, hoping for an exit, some tube, some channel to the outside, some working communication. While in the crawlspace, he knocked out some wires and the air filled with smoke. He continued to eat paper and live in the wall space, far back from the opening, just standing, dead-eyed. He kept himself alive through sheer will. Perhaps the station would slow down and head back to earth. He waited and waited.
|This view can be beautiful... unless you're trapped aboard an orbiting space station|
Olivski was barely conscious when the Soyuz 11 finally achieved hard dock with the station. His breath ran in long, ragged gasps in the oxygen starved air. He'd eaten parts of the wall, and bits of the wire hanging loosely from the tiny crawlspace. The space madness made his face droop. He could not speak any longer, and could not move as Georgi Dobrovol'skiy, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev entered the Salyut 1. Alarmed at the smoky air, they retreated, then returned the next day and began to habitate the station. They re-affixed the panels to the walls, never noticing the gaunt, cadaverous figure crammed inside a space suit at the far end of the crawl space.
What happened next explains the failure on the Soyuz 11's valve seal. Realizing on a primal level that it was his last chance to escape, Olivski clawed his way through the walls by force of will and floated through the compartmental space, his face drowning in floating puddles of spittle and froth. His eyes had all but disappeared from his face, and his mouth hung open like a discarded puppet. The three cosmonauts caught sight of him just as they entered the the orbital module. All three were stricken with a sort of fear that no human should have to endure. Viktor Patsayez rushed to close the circular hatch, and managed to do so, but not before Olivski broke a vital lock mechanism on the other side of the hatch, causing all the locks to burst at once.
Right as the Soyuz 11 broke away from the station, the valve seal broke and the hard collar exploded apart, exposing the three valiant cosmonauts to the vacuum of space. The oxygen bled out from the chamber immediately, and even as the three heroic men worked to reverse the irreversible, they caught glimpse of two gloved hands reaching in from the vacuum of space, followed by a cadaverous head. In their final moments, they saw the thing - barely alive, a demon whose veins boiled in the vacuum of space, a monster who had once been a different sort of monster on Earth.
|There is nothing scarier than a vengeful bureaucrat.|
The thing that was once Olivski peered into the cabin, even as its eyes bubbled and skin rippled. It watched the three courageous men gazing toward the hatch - faces stricken with horror at what he had become. Something human emerged, and as a final act of contrition, the once-Olivski used the last of its strength to close the hatch in a vain attempt to save the lives of the cosmonauts inside. Its grip on the Soyuz 11 loosened and it fell into the cold embrace of the vacuum. The orbital module then descended to earth, whereupon the recovery team found their bodies.
Shortly thereafter, the Soviets scuttled the orbiting Station once it ran out of fuel. There might have been subsequent missions and subsequent Stations, but nothing quite so pioneering as the Salyut 1, and indeed, nothing quite so mysterious and awful. Even today, as we intercept the odd transmissions from space - the brief bursts of static, the labored voices, the raspy breathing - it seems more than a possibility that Dmitri Olivski is still out there in orbit, fighting to breathe, struggling to escape and working to reach us at long last.