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December 18: The First Jew in Space

December 18, 2013
3729Boris Volynov, the first Jew in space, was born in Irkutsk, Siberia, on this date in 1934. He was chosen in 1960 to be one of the Soviet Union’s first cosmonauts, but the uncovering of his Jewish background (his mother, a physician, was Jewish) kept him grounded as a “backup” crewman for eight years, until the launch of the Soyuz 5 mission on January 15, 1969. The flight included the transfer of his two crewmen to Soyuz 4 in an orbital rendezvous. Volynov then almost burned up during his capsule’s terrifying reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. His parachutes also deployed only partially, and a failure of the soft-landing retrorockets caused a hard landing which broke some of his teeth. Volynov was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and Order of Lenin medals, but he did not fly again for nearly seven years, and the story of his troubled flight was kept under wraps until long after the break-up of the USSR. His second mission, aboard Soyuz 21, also endured reentry and landing complications, but everyone on board survived the ordeal. Volynov is an expert in the sense-of-balance mechanism of the inner ear and on the effects of radiation, confinement and weightlessness on space-flight crews. To see a short video about the Soyuz 5 mission, look below. “There was no fear but a deep-cutting and very clear desire to live on when there was no chance left.” —Boris Volynov