Russians Launch the Salyut Space Station Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ten years after Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight, Russian cosmonauts lived aboard the world’s first space station. Tragically, they perished during reentry after setting a new space endurance record.

Summary of Event

Salyut 1 was launched on April 19, 1971, entering an orbit ranging from 200 to 220 kilometers (about 124 to 137 miles). The Soviets hailed Salyut (translated from Russian as “salute,” to honor cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) as the next step in expanding human space endeavors. By establishing an Earth-orbiting space station, the Russians sought to upstage the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) ambitious Skylab Skylab (spacecraft) program, which would not fly for another two years. Space stations;Salyut Salyut space stations Astronauts and cosmonauts [kw]Russians Launch the Salyut Space Station (Apr. 19, 1971) [kw]Launch the Salyut Space Station, Russians (Apr. 19, 1971) [kw]Salyut Space Station, Russians Launch the (Apr. 19, 1971) [kw]Space Station, Russians Launch the Salyut (Apr. 19, 1971) Space stations;Salyut Salyut space stations Astronauts and cosmonauts [g]Soviet Union;Apr. 19, 1971: Russians Launch the Salyut Space Station[00260] [g]Central Asia;Apr. 19, 1971: Russians Launch the Salyut Space Station[00260] [g]Kazakhstan;Apr. 19, 1971: Russians Launch the Salyut Space Station[00260] [c]Science and technology;Apr. 19, 1971: Russians Launch the Salyut Space Station[00260] [c]Spaceflight and aviation;Apr. 19, 1971: Russians Launch the Salyut Space Station[00260] Dobrovolsky, Georgi T. Volkov, Vladislav N. Patsayev, Viktor I. Shatalov, Vladimir A. Yeliseyev, Aleksei S. Rukavishnikov, Nikolai N. Leonov, Aleksei A. Kubasov, Valeri N. Kolodin, Pyotr Ivanovich

Salyut was modular in design, with a 2-meter-diameter (6.5-foot-diameter) transit compartment connecting the docking mechanism to Salyut’s main segment. A 4-meter-diameter (13-foot-diameter) work section also contained provisions for relaxation and sleep. An unpressurized propulsion segment housed equipment bays at the rear. The station’s overall length was 20 meters (66 feet); its total mass was 25,000 kilograms (55,000 pounds). Larger than the cramped Soyuz, Soyuz program Salyut enjoyed 100 cubic meters (3,531 cubic feet) of habitable volume. Many scientific equipment packages and station systems were mounted on the exterior. Entry and exit were available only through the transfer compartment. Future Salyut stations would incorporate an airlock-type feature through which cosmonauts could exit to perform space walks. Salyut 1 was designed with a comfortable environment at 15 degrees Celsius (about 59 degrees Fahrenheit), low humidity, and an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere. Electrical power was provided by four solar panels. Food and water supplies were launched aboard Salyut, and thus total habitation time was limited. Soyuz could bring additional food, but few other consumables. Later Salyut stations would enjoy resupply from unmanned Progress freighters.

Salyut 1 was commanded from Russian ground stations and by vessels stationed in the Atlantic Ocean between launch and the first cosmonauts’ arrival. On April 23, Soyuz 10 launched with commander Vladimir A. Shatalov, flight engineer Aleksei S. Yeliseyev, and test engineer Nikolai N. Rukavishnikov on board. Soyuz 10 performed an automated two-day rendezvous with Salyut 1. Shatalov assumed manual control for the final 180 meters (591 feet) and performed an orbit-long fly-around maneuver while visually assessing Salyut 1’s condition. Then he aligned Soyuz 10 with the station’s forward end. Soyuz 10 docked to Salyut 1 and remained joined for 5.5 hours, but this crew never entered Salyut. Despite official claims to the contrary, a problem had prevented hatch opening. Soyuz 10 returned to Earth on April 25. Postflight analyses indicated that Soyuz 10’s docking ring could not withstand forces encountered at contact with Salyut, so Soyuz 11’s docking ring was strengthened.

Soyuz 11’s crew originally consisted of Aleksei A. Leonov, Valeri N. Kubasov, and Pyotr Ivanovich Kolodin. When final medical examinations detected a spot on Kubasov’s lung indicative of tuberculosis, a decision was made to roll the Soyuz 11 spacecraft/booster combination to the launch pad but to replace the prime crew with the backup crew consisting of commander Georgi T. Dobrovolsky, flight engineer Vladislav N. Volkov, and test engineer Viktor I. Patsayev.

On June 6, 1971, when Soyuz 11 launched at 7:25 a.m. from the Baykonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Salyut 1 had a 4,000-kilometer (2,485-mile) orbital lead. Soyuz 11 flew a two-day automated rendezvous sequence; then Dobrovolsky assumed manual control to cover the final 100 meters to docking. After completing postdocking procedures, the crew opened the hatches, and Patsayev entered Salyut 1, followed by Volkov and Dobrovolsky. The cosmonauts began extensive visual inspections, checked vital systems and gauges, and set up Soyuz 11 to draw electricity from Salyut 1. Equipment was unpacked, and research began even on the first day of station occupancy.

Within their Oasis greenhouse, cosmonauts grew selected plants: flax for its strong gravisensory response, onion for genetic experiments, and cabbage for potential nutritional value. They operated the Orion astrophysics observatory, measured cosmic radiation, observed upper atmospheric phenomena, and photographed Earth’s resources, geological features, land reclamation, storms, and fish school migrations. A solar telescope produced no data, as its cover failed to jettison. The cosmonauts volunteered as test subjects for investigations of muscle atrophy, deconditioning of the cardiovascular system, bone demineralization, cosmic radiation exposure, and changes in metabolic function and vestibular responses in space. Excretory samples were collected periodically for postflight analysis to monitor physiological changes. The cosmonauts tested proposed countermeasures to weightlessness, such as the Penguin suit, which temporarily provides a simulated earthly load on the human osteomuscular system, thereby ameliorating the deteriorating effects of prolonged weightlessness.

On June 16, a fire broke out aboard the station. The cosmonauts retreated to Soyuz and prepared for an emergency departure. However, after several hours, the strong burning smell and smoke dissipated. On June 20, Salyut 1 tallied one thousand orbits since launch. Live television showed the crew tending plants, which Patsayev watered daily. Other living things on board included frog eggs and fruit flies. On June 25, the crew set a new endurance record at twenty days, surpassing Soyuz 9’s flight time.

The Soviet people eagerly awaited return of these space heroes who had restored pride in their space program after the Soyuz 1 accident (thus losing the Moon race to the Americans). Hosts of celebrations awaited the crew. The cosmonauts stored everything to be returned to Earth inside Soyuz 11’s descent module and on June 29 reconfigured Salyut 1 for autonomous operation. They closed the transfer compartment hatch and Soyuz 11’s orbital module hatch and then undocked.

Soyuz 11 cosmonauts (left to right) Viktor I. Patsayev, Georgi T. Dobrovolsky, and Vladislav N. Volkov in the Soyuz simulator during mission training.

(NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

The next morning, a deorbit burn dropped Soyuz 11 out of orbit. The spacecraft was beyond communications range, and ten minutes after deorbit the orbital and instrument-equipment modules separated from the descent module positioned between them. Telemetry indicated entry and landing occurred normally, despite no word from the cosmonauts. Soyuz 11 landed 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). Recovery crews opened the spacecraft hatch and found the cosmonauts unresponsive. Years later, films surfaced documenting recovery forces desperately trying to resuscitate the crew. The Russian people were shocked. Instead of celebrations, cremations were conducted and state interments held at the Kremlin Wall.

An investigation determined that, at separation of the orbital and descent modules, a cabin exhaust valve, meant to be cycled when there was sensible atmospheric pressure outside the descending spacecraft, had jarred open. In less than forty-five seconds, rapid decompression overwhelmed the crew before they could locate the leak and close the valve before losing consciousness. Postmortem analyses indicated that the crew suffered brain hemorrhages and had blood in their lungs and nitrogen in their blood. Data indicated that Dobrovolsky’s respiratory rate soared from sixteen to forty-eight breaths per minute within four seconds of depressurization. Asphyxiation quickly resulted, and in less than thirty seconds he expired. Sadly, had the crew been wearing pressure suits, this accident would have had no serious consequences.

Salyut 1 continued to be controlled from ground stations after the Soyuz 11 accident. Plans to launch a Soyuz 12 replacement crew were canceled. After completing 2,800 Earth orbits, the station was commanded on October 11, 1971, to reenter destructively. There no longer remained sufficient propellant for maintenance of station attitude.


Salyut was Russia’s answer to NASA’s successful lunar program; by this time, Apollo 11, 12, and 14 had briefly explored the Moon. Although outfitted as a long-duration, multipurpose research laboratory, Salyut 1 would ultimately be visited by only two crews. The Soyuz 10 crew could not even enter the station, let alone take residence; the Soyuz 11 crew was able to live on board long enough to set a new spaceflight endurance record, but perished during reentry. Soyuz 11 and Salyut 1 represented an important evolutionary step forward in manned spaceflight but ended with three dead cosmonauts and loss of the world’s first space station. Two years would pass before other cosmonauts would be launched, and in the meantime NASA astronauts completed humanity’s first series of lunar explorations and earned endurance records while conducting experiments in many disciplines aboard the Skylab space station.

Salyut 1 was the initial of two versions of first-generation Russian space stations, one largely military (Salyut 3 and 5), with reconnaissance applications, and the other civilian (Soyuz 1, 4, 6, and 7), with science and Earthly applications. Both offered essential learning experiences about living and working in space for extended periods. Russian space programs matured from early spectaculars toward a more evolutionary, permanent occupation of low Earth orbit. Space stations;Salyut Salyut space stations Astronauts and cosmonauts

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Rex D., and David J. Shayler. Soyuz. New York: Springer-Praxis, 2003. Comprehensive exposition of the role that the Soyuz spacecraft played since its inception in the mid-1960’s, including the Soyuz 11 tragedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, David, and Alexei Leonov. Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. A dual autobiography by two men on opposite sides of the space race. Leonov had intimate knowledge of the Salyut 1 story; some of it is presented here in the overall context of the space race.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimmerman, Robert. Leaving Earth: Space Station, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2006. Argues that space station programs could or should have been evolutionary steps toward development of routine exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.

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Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

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First Permanently Manned Space Station Is Launched

Space Shuttle Docks with Mir

International Space Station Is Manned

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