[FPSPACE] The Red Stuff

Bart Hendrickx bhen@tijd.com
Tue, 24 Oct 2000 11:22:04 +0100


>A previous unmanned Soyuz test sank into the ocean when a hole was burned
>into the heat shield.  So they had to build a bigger heat shield and as a
>result of that the parachute had to be bigger also.  They never had a
>chance to test the new parachute prior to launch of Soyuz 1.


Nikolayev's reasoning in yesterday's documentary was that because the
heatshield had to be strengthened, the spacecraft became slightly heavier
and the parachutes had to be made slightly larger, all this while the volume
of the parachute compartment itself remained unchanged. As a result the
parachute had to be literally jammed into the container (using a "wooden
hammer" in Nikolayev's words) and this somehow made it impossible for it to
be extracted from the container during descent.

It is true that the heatshield was modified after Cosmos-140 sank in the
Aral Sea, but there are no indications from the available literature to
suggest that this necessitated a change in the parachute system. The
official investigation into the accident did conclude that the container was
the wrong shape and was too small, but not that this was a result of the
parachute itself having been made bigger after the Cosmos-140 accident (or
at least that is not mentioned in the published accounts). It was simply too
small by original design. To make matters worse, it was compressed by the
difference in pressure that arose between the crew cabin and the container
when the latter's cover was jettisoned at 9 km altitude. This meant that the
drag chute needed to apply much more force to extract the main chute than
had been anticipated.

There was also an unofficial (but much more likely) explanation of the main
chute failure, namely that the parachute compartment was poorly covered (or
not covered at all) when the descent capsule's heatshield was polymerized in
a high-temperature chamber. As a result, tiny particles of insulation
settled on the inside walls of the compartment, which became rough and
sticky, making it much harder for the the main chute to be extracted. The
same processing error had evidently been made on Soyuz-2, which therefore
would very likely have suffered the same fate had it been launched to link
up with Komarov's ship (its main parachute did indeed fail a test at
Baikonur shortly after Komarov's accident).

So based on the evidence that is currently available, I would be a little
skeptical of Nikolayev's account. Bear in mind that cosmonauts' memories
have often proven to be just as fallible as anyone else's...

Bart Hendrickx