Humanity has bore witness to many tragedies during its exploration of the final frontier. The Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. The fire aboard Apollo 1. The near-catastrophe of Apollo 13.
Valentin Bondarenko, the first casualty on our road to space, died from a fire that occurred while training in a low-pressure chamber. The first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, died in a jet crash on March 27, 1968 while preparing for the Soyuz 3 mission. Many others have given their lives in the pursuit of space exploration.
But has anyone ever died in space?
The answer to that question depends on your definition of space. If you exclude re-entry, take-off, and limit your definition of “space” to low Earth orbit and beyond, then the answer is no. However, technically, three men have died in space.
The Soyuz 11 Tragedy
In June of 1971, the three crew members of Soyuz 11 – Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov – docked with the Salyut 1 space station. They spent three weeks there, and on June 30, 1971, they reboarded Soyuz 11 and undocked to return home.
They would not survive the voyage.
It wasn’t until the capsule landed (via autopilot) and the hatch was opened that the recovery team discovered they had asphyxiated. As it turned out, a breathing ventilation valve unexpectedly opened when the descent module separated from the service module, causing air to leak from the spacecraft. They were at an altitude of 168km (104 miles) when the cabin depressurized.
It’s internationally recognized that space begins at an altitude of 100km (or 62 miles, known as the Kármán line), making the crew of Soyuz 11 the only humans to have ever technically died in space.