Gennady Strekalov

Cosmonaut on near-fatal missions

Gennady Mikhailovich Strekalov, cosmonaut: born Mytishchi, Soviet Union 28 October 1940; married (two daughters); died Moscow 25 December 2004.

Gennady Strekalov may not be the most celebrated of the more than 400 humans who have so far ventured into space, but he must certainly qualify as one of the most courageous. Not only did he survive a terrifying launch-pad fire and a near-collision between two spacecraft, but he participated in a remarkable rebellion against Russian ground controllers that resulted in a hefty fine and an acrimonious legal case.

Strekalov was born in Mytishchi, an industrial town just outside Moscow, in 1940. Five years later, his father was killed in action during the Red Army's liberation of Poland from the Nazis. After leaving school, Strekalov became an apprentice coppersmith, helping to assemble Sputnik, the world's first satellite. He then enrolled at the Bauman Moscow Higher Technical School, graduating with an engineering diploma in 1965.

Given a position at the Korolyov Design Bureau, the most important of the Soviet space enterprises, he assisted in the development and testing of the new Soyuz manned spacecraft and in 1973 was selected to join the cosmonaut team. At the age of 40, after serving as a back-up crew member for the Soyuz 22 mission, Strekalov finally achieved his ambition to fly in space. Over a hectic 12-day period, the three-man Soyuz T-3 crew carried out repairs to the Salyut 6 station.

A year later, he was paired with Vladimir Titov, first as a back-up crew for Soyuz T-5, and then as part of a three-man prime crew intended to spend several months on board the Salyut 7 space station. The mission of Soyuz T-8 proved to be far from routine. After a two-day flight to reach the empty station, the spacecraft's radar antenna failed to deploy. The crew received permission to try a highly risky docking run in darkness, using only optical aids and radar inputs from the ground. However, aware that they were approaching too quickly, Titov braked and veered away at the last minute, with the solar wings of the Soyuz skimming past the giant station. Their near-calamity was only revealed a few years later.

Rather than waste Strekalov and Titov's specialist training, the Soviet authorities quickly reassigned them to the next available space-station slot. On the night of 26 September 1983, the crew clambered aboard their Soyuz T-10 craft, perched on the nose of a Soyuz booster. As the countdown reached T minus 90 seconds, a stuck valve in the propellant line caused a fuel leak that led to a fire at the base of the booster.

With the blaze spreading out of control, it was only a matter of seconds before the 270 tons of kerosene in the rocket's fuel tanks exploded. Perched more than 120 feet above the ground, the crew awaited the automatic abort that would activate the escape rocket, but the flames had already engulfed the wires that would send the signal. Fortunately, the launch controllers had sufficient presence of mind to send a radio transmission from the blockhouse.

In the only "live" demonstration of a launch-pad abort, the escape rocket fired just seconds before the fireball engulfed the rocket. Crushed in their seats with a force more than 10 times normal gravity, the cosmonauts watched helplessly as the rocket delivered them several miles from the launch pad and the crew cabin was jettisoned. Floating beneath a reserve emergency parachute, the cabin fell earthward, illuminated by searchlights. Then, just five feet above the ground, the Soyuz retrorockets fired and the capsule hit the ground with a thump. The rescue teams found the men shaken, but uninjured, after their traumatic ordeal. Strekalov and Titov celebrated the date each year afterwards as their "second birthday".

Strekalov could have been forgiven for thinking that the Fates were against him after two near-death experiences, but he remained on the active list, and in 1984 he participated in an eight-day propaganda mission to fly an Indian cosmonaut to Salyut 7. He was subsequently appointed head of the civilian cosmonaut team.

His fourth orbital flight took place from 1 August to 10 December 1990, when he was flight engineer on the seventh long-duration mission to the Mir space station. Among the highlights of the stay were the first use of a Progress capsule to return samples to Earth, a brief visit by a chain-smoking Japanese journalist, and attempts to rear quail.

Although he retired officially in January 1995, Strekalov was granted the honour that summer of accompanying Norman Thagard, the first US astronaut to fly to a Russian space station. Strekalov and Vladimir Dezhurov also had to prepare the station for the automated docking of a 20-ton module called Spektr. Between 12 May and 2 June, they worked outside Mir on five separate occasions. In one spacewalk alone, the men spent a near-record seven hours outside, almost suffocating as their suits ran low on oxygen.

As time passed, the crew became increasingly tired and irritable. Finally, Strekalov snapped, refusing on safety grounds to conduct an unplanned spacewalk to unfurl a solar array that had failed to deploy. "I was really yelling at them," he recalled. After two days of arguing, the Russian authorities gave way, although managers back in Moscow decided to punish this mutiny by fining the men $10,000.

The expedition ended with the first docking between a US Space Shuttle and Mir, creating the largest structure ever to orbit the Earth. This sixth mission and fifth trip into space brought Strekalov's overall orbital time to 269 days. The cloud over his final flight eventually lifted when he went to arbitration and his fine was overturned. He continued to work for the Korolyov Design Bureau (now renamed RSC Energia) until his death.

Peter Bond

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own