Soyuz 23: How two cosmonauts almost died after landing back on Earth

With the severe weather waning, just before dawn the next day, a team of rescuers finally reached the capsule by boat. A short time later, a helicopter arrived on the scene and secured a line directly to the descent module. The rescuers agreed that the quickest course of action was to simply tug the descent module to shore. But such a procedure had never been practiced, let alone tested, before.

Despite the dangers, they decided it was their best option. The process, which took almost an hour, was extremely hard on the cosmonauts within the descent module, which occasionally would be forced completely underwater while it was pulled along. Still, it worked. Half a day after splashdown, the men finally emerged from a spacecraft coated in ice — both inside and out — and stepped foot back on solid ground.

Zudov and Rozhdestvensky officially received public honors for their perilous mission. But behind closed doors, they were largely blamed for the failed docking with Salyut 5. Neither man would ever fly to space again. Rozhdestvensky died in 2011 at the age of 72, while Zudov (now 79) is still alive to this day.

Soyuz 23, like Apollo 13, could be called a “successful failure” because the planned mission was never accomplished, yet the men all lived to tell the tale. And Soyuz 23, in particular, serves as a warning to astronauts of all nations: Survival training, while unlikely to be utilized, may one day save your life.

Doug Adler is a frequent contributor to Astronomy and the co-host of The Right Stuff Companion podcast.

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