Former cosmonaut Alexei Gubarev—who commanded a month-long mission to the Soviet Union’s Salyut 4 space station in early 1974 and later led the first international orbital voyage to Salyut 6, teamed with Czechoslovakia’s Vladimir Remek, in March 1978—has died, aged 83. According to the Prague Post and Russian sources, Gubarev passed away on 21 February. Selected in the early 1960s as part of a “new generation” of older and more highly qualified cosmonauts, Gubarev worked on the early Soyuz program, whose various arms included military and lunar options, and was intimately involved in the Soyuz 11 tragedy of June 1971. During his two missions, Gubarev spent more than five weeks in orbit and became one of the first men to occupy two different space stations.
Alexei Alexandrovich Gubarev was born on 29 March 1931, into a peasant-stock family, in the village of Gvardeitsy, on the east bank of the mighty Volga River, in the Samara region of western Russia. After the death of his father, the family moved to the Chashnikovo collective farm, near Moscow, and in 1950 Gubarev graduated from middle school in Kryukovo and enrolled at the Naval Aviation School for Aircraft Mechanics. He subsequently entered the Soviet Air Force and after completing advanced studies was detailed in 1962 to join an aviation unit in the Black Sea as a squadron commander. Shortly afterwards, he attracted the attention of recruiters for the cosmonaut team.
Selected in January 1963, Gubarev’s contemporaries included such luminaries as Georgi Dobrovolski—who later lost his life aboard Soyuz 11—together with future space station residents Yuri Artyukhin and Vitali Zholobov, as well as Georgi Beregovoi and Lev Dyomin, who would go on to secure records for the then-oldest man in space and the first space grandfather. In his early years, Gubarev worked on the later-cancelled Soyuz-VI military program, the L-1 effort to send a Soviet crew on a lunar-orbital voyage, and the DOS-2 civilian space station. In mid-June 1971, he joined fellow cosmonauts Vitali Sevastyanov and Anatoli Voronov to back up Alexei Leonov’s scheduled 30-day Soyuz 12 expedition to the world’s first space station, Salyut 1. However, just two weeks later, the Soyuz 11 crew lost their lives during their return to Earth from Salyut 1 and the entire Soviet human space program was thrown into disarray for more than two years.
Ironically, Gubarev’s crew completed their training on 30 June, the very day that the Soyuz 11 crew died. Had the disaster not occurred, Leonov’s prime crew and Gubarev’s backup crew would likely have flown to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in early July to prepare for launch. It has been noted by Grujica Ivanovich in his 2008 book Salyut: The First Space Station, that Gubarev, Sevastyanov and Voronov might then have flown the Soyuz 13 mission to the DOS-2 civilian space station, sometime in 1972. However, this station—which would have been renamed “Salyut 2,” had it reached orbit—was lost a few minutes after its July 1972 launch, following a booster failure. By the later summer of that year, the State Commission decided to fly a Soyuz vehicle on a “solo” mission in Earth orbit to test improved space suits and redesigned systems, with Gubarev and fellow cosmonaut Georgi Grechko expected to be aboard. However, this mission was ultimately canceled.
By now teamed with Grechko, he toiled on the backup crew for Vasili Lazarev and Oleg Makarov’s Soyuz 12 return-to-flight mission, which took place in September 1973, before re-entering dedicated training for a lengthy space station expedition. On 11 January 1975, Gubarev and Grechko were launched from Baikonur aboard Soyuz 17, bound for the Salyut 4 station, where they would spend the next month.
The cosmonauts worked on a variety of scientific research, including solar physics, vestibular and cardiovascular studies, Earth resources, and atmospheric observations. They examined the Crab Nebula and supernova remnants in the constellations of Vela and Puppis, together with white dwarfs, neutron stars, suspected black holes, and the background radiation of the Milky Way. At one point, they successfully resurfaced Salyut 4’s solar telescope, whose primary mirror had been temporarily “blinded” by a pointing error. The station itself proved somewhat homely, with cupboards for their eating utensils and a food warmer for their daily soup and coffee, as well as a teletypewriter for messages from mission controllers.
Returning to Earth on 9 February 1975, Gubarev and Grechko had spent just over 29 days in space, achieving a new Soviet endurance record and soundly surpassing the 28-day achievement of the United States’ first Skylab crew. However, by this stage, another Skylab crew had established an empirical world record of 84 days, which would not be broken until the 96-day mission of Soyuz 26 cosmonauts Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko aboard the Salyut 6 station in December 1977-March 1978. During their three months in orbit, Romanenko and Grechko welcomed two teams of human visitors, including the joint Soviet-Czech Soyuz 28 crew of Gubarev and Vladimir Remek in early March 1978.
The latter formed part of the “Intercosmos” program, which sought to offer week-long flights into space for “guest” cosmonauts from Soviet satellite republics or aligned states and in 1976 Gubarev was assigned to command the first mission. By May of the following year, he had been teamed with Remek, but it was clear that the Intercosmos pilots were considered as little more than passengers by the Soviet commanders. Years later, in a June 1986 article for Flight International, Tim Furniss highlighted that Remek returned from space with sore knuckles. “He said it was because every time he went to touch something, he was smacked on the hand by the commander!”
Soyuz 28 roared into orbit on 2 March 1978 and Gubarev expertly docked at Salyut 6 the following day, kicking off almost a full week of joint research with the incumbent crew. And on the 4th, Gubarev and Remek were in attendance when Romanenko and Grechko surpassed the 84-day achievement of the final Skylab crew and began an era of Soviet and Russian dominance in spaceflight endurance records which continues to this very day. At length, Soyuz 28 returned to Earth on 10 March, concluding Gubarev’s second and final mission and bringing his cumulative space-time to 37 days, 11 hours, and 36 minutes. As well as cementing the relationship between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia—which was acutely needed in the wake of the “Prague Spring” invasion a decade earlier—the mission forged a lifelong friendship between Gubarev and Remek.
Today, Remek served as the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Russia and he wrote poignantly of the loss of his friend on the embassy’s website. “The news … came unexpectedly,” he explained. “We were planning to jointly celebrate the anniversary of our flight, 2 March.” He added that “one whole stage of my life has left with Alexei,” and AmericaSpace extends its sincere condolences to the Gubarev family.