There never were any missing cosmonauts.
Yes, there was this hoax in the fifties, two journalists from Italy or France have propped their sagging careers with “intercepts” of the shortwave communication between failing orbiter and ground stations. The Iron Curtain was convenient, for once: they could write whatever they wanted, and no one had any data to contradict them. No one, that is, but a handful of people who knew the comm protocols, frequencies, encoding schemes – but who would listen to them? Tales of Soviet spacemen dying in orbit were much sexier. Truth is, all the cosmonauts are accounted for, their lives and deaths known.
All but two.
Savinykh and Dzhanibekov were the fourth and last crew of Salyut 7. The station was launched in 1982, and – like its odd-numbered predecessors – was military and presumably armed. First three crews spent their time relatively uneventfully: as far as we know, there were a few minor emergencies, successfully repaired by crew. Savinykh and Dzhanibekov started their stint on June 6, 1985. They were both experienced, with over a hundred days in space each. Our first indication that something is amiss was the unusual behavior of the next ferry flight, over three months later. The Soyuz with replacement crew didn’t dock with the station; it just hung there, mere hundred metres away. NORAD tracked both craft, but they soon went out of range for visual: for the next eighteen hours or so we had just radar, which could not tell us whether they docked or not. When we could see them again, the station was alone. But, oh well, nobody paid much attention: it could have been simple docking problem, right? The Soviets soon announced another successful crew rotation and everybody moved on. We had our own trouble – Atlantis was up with the payload, this is still classified so don’t ask – and nobody paid attention; after all the Salyut was regular as a clock, ticking its orbits away.
Then, in March, I think, somebody took a breather from looking in awe at the brand new Mir station and noticed that the reentry craft for last crew was still docked to Salyut 7. Somebody else then thought of checking the last Salyut 7 activities and then we finally saw that there was no resupply flights to the station since September.
It seems that this last Soyuz did not dock after all – and later on, nothing didn’t even try.
Next visit to the Salyut was in May 1986, almost a year after the last resupply craft arrived. Two cosmonauts undocked their capsule from the Mir, then flew to Salyut 7. We have no idea what did they see on board – the Russians never said a word about this mission. We have only a handful of facts: the commander of this mission, Leonid Kizim, spent most part of 1984 at this very station and could be safely presumed to be a friend of both Savinykh and Dzhanibekov. Kizim and his copilot Solovyov spent 52 days on Salyut 7. A week after they came back to Mir, Salyut 7 fired its station-keeping engine, and then the docked return craft engine. These two burns took the station to the same graveyard orbit that the radar recon satellites eject their spent nuclear reactors. Solovyov retired soon after this flight, then died a year later. Kizim is still active, he currently keeps the record for most days in orbit – in fact, he’s on the Mir right now. They both were decorated with “Hero of the Soviet Union” medals after their mission.
We haven’t got the slightest idea what happened – why Savinykh and Dzhanibekov stopped the replacement crew from boarding and why didn’t they come back themselves. We don’t know what could Solovyov see there; we don’t know but it destroyed him. We don’t know why the High Command of Strategic Rocket Forces saw fit to put this station at the farthest reachable orbit instead of letting it burn in the atmosphere.
Maybe someday we will find out.
I hope not.