Gennady Strekalov

Cosmonaut on near-fatal missions

Monday 03 January 2005 01:00

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

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