UPDATED 23 July 2011
Technically, the only deaths in space (which is at least 100 km above the earth’s surface) happened to the 3-man crew of Soyuz 11, Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov on 30th June 1971.
They were killed after undocking from the world’s first space station Salyut 1, after a 3-week stay there, the first successful visit to the world’s first space station. In preparation for re-entry, a valve on their spacecraft had accidentally opened when the service module separated, exposing them to the vacuum of space, i.e. the crew capsule depressurized, suffocating them within seconds. This was only discovered when the module was opened by the recovery team who found them already dead.
14 October 2007
Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov (1927 – 1967) of the Soviet Union is the first person to die during a space mission.
He was on his second mission, the first Soviet astronaut to do so. He went up on 23rd April 1967, did all the things he’s supposed to do, then came back to earth the next day.
He was killed on his reentry, when the spacecraft crashed due to failure of the parachute system. Both main and reserve chutes failed. The main one did not open due to problems with a sensor, then the reserve became tangled.
Hence his ship smashed to the ground from 4 miles up, around 400 miles per hour, or 644 km/hr, or 40 meters a second, at about 0322 UT.
In addition to the parachutes, retro-rockets should have fired to further slow the drop.
But, on hitting the ground, there was an explosion. A big fire surrounded the capsule.
Farmers rushed to try to put it out, but it is very likely that Komarov was killed instantly upon impact.
The capsule’s state was such that rescue crews could not find Komarov when they arrived and approached the burning wreckage. They needed an hour of excavations to find Komarov’s remains, which were found about 0630 UT. Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev was informed at around 0900 UT.
Komarov was given a state funeral.
Apparently, just before impact, Soviet premier Alexey Kosygin told Komarov his country was proud of him. Rumours said that Komarov died cursing the spacecraft designers and flight controllers. Then, a tape from another source was reported to bear Komarov’s distraught unclear transmissions. The recording was made perhaps on his final orbit before reentry.