The astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan is noted for having coined the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” His observation has since been applied to many situations, from the assertion of fossilized extraterrestrial life in meteorites to the recent announcement of a possible new subatomic particle.
The same advice can and should be applied to at least certain claims made by co-authors Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran in the recently revised edition of their 1998 book, “Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin.”
The book, which as its title implies primarily chronicles the life of Yuri Gagarin, who 50 years ago became the first human to fly in space. It seemed somewhat odd, then, when advance publicity for “Starman” focused on the tale of fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who was tragically killed when the parachutes that would have slowed his spacecraft’s approach to Earth failed to open.
How or why the “Starman” story of Komarov’s ill-fated flight drew the attention of National Public Radio science correspondent Robert Krulwich is unknown, but it did. Krulwich wrote about the authors’ “extraordinarily intimate account” — which they attributed to a former KGB officer and a late Russian journalist — on his NPR blog, setting off a firestorm among space historians and many in Russia, who found the book’s account to be more than just “extraordinary” but extra-wrong.
Among the key points of contention was the claim that Komarov knowingly and purposely sacrificed himself to save his friend and back-up, Yuri Gagarin. Komarov, according to Bizony and Doran (quoting former KGB agent Benyamin Russayev), was so sure whoever flew Soyuz 1 would die that he refused to step aside to save Gagarin’s life.
Conversely, Gagarin is said to have demanded a spacesuit to fly in Komarov’s place, a claim made even more curious by the fact that neither Komarov nor anyone else would wear a pressure suit aboard any Soyuz spacecraft until after the next tragedy four years later, which claimed three lives as the result of a depressurization.
Perhaps most controversial is the authors’ account of Komarov losing it during re-entry, cursing and crying in rage over the radio as he fell to his death. The transcripts of his flight, long referenced by other historians in their own accounts of the same tragedy, reveal the opposite. Komarov was calm, having no knowledge that his parachutes would fail and then, when they did, having only seconds to come to that realization.
The same transcripts also counter another claim, that Komarov spoke with Premier Alexei Kosygin as he plummeted to his death. No such conversation is documented as having occurred.
Komarov was an experienced test pilot and cosmonaut — the first to make a second spaceflight — and deserves better than having his unfortunate death sensationalized in the name of selling a new paperback edition of a more than decade-old book.
History deserves better, too. A prominent blog entry like Krulwich’s is all that is needed to ensure that Bizony’s and Doran’s account of Komarov’s death won’t soon die itself. Between wiki edits and those inclined to accept the more dramatic, less accurate account simply because it is more dramatic, the “Starman” version of history will forever find a life on the Internet, if not also as a result in subsequent articles and books.
It is not good enough for Bizony and Doran to point to their source, the largely unknown Russayev, as proof, just as it not good enough for Krulwich to point to the authors for propagating extraordinary claims. If Bizony and Doran are truly determined to deliver “the truth behind the legend,” then they should deliver the “extraordinary evidence” to back their claims.
Robert Pearlman is the editor and founder of the space history news and community website collectSPACE.com.