Oleg Makarov

Survivor of a crash landing in the mountains of Siberia after the launch failure of the Soviet spacecraft 'Soyuz 18'
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The Independent Online

Oleg Grigorievich Makarov, cosmonaut: born Udomlya, Soviet Union 6 January 1933; married (two sons); died Moscow 29 May 2003.

Although he was shortlisted for a mission to the Moon and completed three successful orbital flights over a period of 18 years, Oleg Makarov will best be remembered for his unwilling participation in 1975 in one of the most traumatic launch failures in the history of human space flight.

A cosmonaut since 1966, Makarov was no stranger to the dangers of rocketry and space travel, having watched four colleagues die during re-entry between 1967 and 1971. Indeed, his first trip into space in 1973 was a two-day shakedown flight for the flawed Soyuz spacecraft which had caused the deaths of cosmonauts Komarov, Volkov, Patsayev and Dobrovolski. However, it was the near-fatal Soyuz 18 mission that proved to be the defining moment of Makarov's cosmonaut career.

Makarov was born in 1933 in the village of Udomlya in the Kalinin region. As the son of a professional soldier, he moved around eastern Europe, attending a variety of schools. In 1951 he enrolled in the Bauman Moscow Higher Technical School, from which he graduated in 1957 with a degree in engineering. He then went to work in the famous OKB-1 design bureau, headed by the charismatic chief designer, Sergei Korolev, where he took part in the development of several generations of manned spacecraft.

In 1966, with the Soviet manned programme in full swing, Makarov was chosen to be a member of the first civilian cosmonaut group and sent to Star City for training. Final approval of his selection was delayed due to his poor articulation of the consonant "r", which was seen as a possible sign of a head injury and a handicap that might lead to misunderstandings during radio communication.

Finally, after exhaustive tests, he was given the all-clear in mid-1967 and assigned to the lunar training group. By September 1968, he and Alexei Leonov had become the favourites to fly the first circumlunar mission, but technical problems and the success of America's Apollo 8 trip around the Moon meant that the flight was cancelled. Nevertheless, Makarov and Leonov continued training for the first Soviet manned landing on Earth's natural satellite.

But it was not to be. Successive failures of the giant N1 Moon rocket left the cosmonauts stranded on Earth and in 1971 Makarov was reassigned to the struggling space station programme. He faced further disappointment when his scheduled Soyuz flight had to be cancelled after two space stations were lost in quick succession. Makarov and Vasili Lazarev had to settle for a two-day cruise in the redesigned Soyuz 12 in 1973.

Two years later, as the Soviet Union attempted to establish a successful space station programme and demonstrate that it could compete against America's Skylab missions, Makarov and Lazarev were reselected for a trip to the civilian Salyut 4 station. Soyuz 18 lifted off from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a warm, sunny afternoon that seemed to bode well for the two-month mission that lay ahead.

At first, everything went according to plan. The four strap-on boosters separated, followed by the nose fairing and the escape rocket, allowing sunlight to flood in through the cabin porthole. Then, 261 seconds after lift-off, it was time for the third stage to break away from the redundant second stage. Suddenly the crew encountered a violent swaying motion, followed by a loud siren and a red "booster failure" warning light on the control panel. Although the third stage had ignited on schedule, the lower stage had only partially separated, threatening to send the entire vehicle - now some 90 miles above the Siberian forests - crashing uncontrollably to the ground.

After the crew's repeated demands to mission control that the abort sequence should be initiated, the Soyuz was finally separated from the errant booster, enabling the spacecraft's main engine to engage and pull it clear. The Soyuz descent module was then separated from the rest of the craft at an altitude of 119 miles before it began its headlong plunge towards the Earth. Following a ballistic trajectory, the men were subjected to an unprecedented 20g re-entry which forced them back in their seats and drove the breath from their lungs. To their great relief, as the deceleration forces decreased, the spacecraft's parachute system activated, followed by the soft-landing rockets.

Out of touch with ground control and concerned that they might have landed in China, Makarov attempted to fix their whereabouts and correctly calculated that they had come to rest in the Altai mountains, 978 miles downrange from their launch site. A further unpleasant revelation awaited when they opened the hatch and peered outside at the snow- covered landscape. Their capsule had slid down a mountainside and only the parachute, which had snagged in a tree, was preventing it from sliding into a deep ravine.

The men managed to drag themselves outside, don their thermal clothing and switch on the distress beacon. Their signal was soon detected and a search plane began to circle over their position. "How do you feel?" enquired the pilot. "We feel as good as the weather," replied the disconsolate Makarov.

Crawling over the deep snow, they gathered some twigs, lit a fire and settled down for the night, fortified against the sub-zero temperatures only by melted snow and biscuits from the emergency rations. With the first glimmer of dawn above the canopy of trees, a helicopter appeared. After a protracted struggle, the Soyuz capsule was also retrieved.

The aborted mission, officially known as the "April 5 anomaly", was not acknowledged by the Soviet authorities until 7 April. Despite a lobbying campaign by some officials to deny the men any awards for their failed mission, both of the returning heroes were eventually presented with the Order of Lenin for "courage displayed during the launch". However, their claims for compensation of 3,000 roubles for use of the emergency escape system, recognised in their salary conditions, were vehemently disputed, and not until the personal intervention of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev were the payments confirmed.

Lazarev never flew again, but Makarov was made of sterner stuff, completing two further trips into space over the next five years. The first of these was a five-day visit to the Salyut 6 space station, the first time that the inhabitants of a space station had been paid a visit by another crew. Makarov was subsequently proclaimed a Hero of the Soviet Union for the second time (the first had been for his flight in Soyuz 12). In November 1980, he became the first cosmonaut to take part in four space missions when he joined Leonid Kizim and Gennadi Strekalov on the maiden flight of the three-man version of the Soyuz-T spacecraft.

Peter Bond