I think a lot about Vladimir Komarov.
Many know of Yuri Gagarin—the first human in outer space—a state treasure to the Soviets, loved and revered as a hero. But not many know of Vladimir Komarov and the tragic mission of the Soyuz 1. Vladimir was shot up as part of a publicity stunt to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Communist Revolution. At the dawn of the space race, it was to be a feat to end all feats: The transfer in orbit of a cosmonaut from one capsule to another via spacewalk. The rough equivalent of a tight rope walker crossing between two skyscrapers moving at 17,000 miles per hour.
The capsule was shoddy and the mission was rushed—reports say there were hundreds of problems noted before the launch. Yuri Gagarin even allegedly wrote a letter to the KGB to try and save his friend Komarov from certain death. But Vladimir seemed resigned to his fate and Brezhnev would not be denied. On April 24th, 1967, after struggling to regain control of the capsule, Vladimir Komarov attempted re-entry, but the main chute got tangled on deployment and the Soyuz 1 crashed to Earth in a fiery wreck.
You shouldn’t be running at all with flat feet, Geoff. We’ve been over this. You’re just
not built for it. This is a tired argument between my doctor and me. I go through at least four pairs of running shoes a year. I examine inserts and insoles like tires: Good for 1 year or 500 miles, whichever comes first. I’ve gone through every brand of shoe and paid serious coin for orthopedic nonsense that warps my feet so badly, they end up like weathered bird claws at the end of my runs. I’ve lost four toenails in the course of my obsession. I’ve rolled ankles, sprained tendons, and pain is simply a constant when I bang my frame over pavement. I buy Epsom salts and blister tape in bulk.
Vladimir was alone in that capsule. Trained as a fighter pilot, used to danger and well-versed in cool under fire, he was no doubt better suited to stress than the average civilian. But plummeting to Earth, alone with his thoughts and the existential hugeness of impending death—far too big to fit into that tiny metal coffin—what must he have thought? Did he cry? Did he scream in rage and rail against the State that sent him to his death, certainly knowing he was doomed from the moment he affixed his helmet? Or was it something else?
Dear Icarus, was it worth it to touch the sun? Did you fall in contentment, knowing that you defied them all and made good on everything you promised you’d do? Did you plummet in triumph, Dear Icarus? Did you plummet in ecstasy?
This is what normal knee cartilage looks like, Geoff. Now, look at this, this is what your knees look like. You have to stop this. I have one leg shorter than the other by about an inch. Bruce Lee did as well and look at all he accomplished, so I feel like I’m in good company. When I walk, my left leg bends and rises, as if going over a small speed bump and my right leg, stiff and straight, collapses onto the ground like a pirate’s peg leg. A rise, a thump. A rise, a thump. When I’m drunk or tired, it’s more pronounced and if I don’t keep an eye on it, I’m prone to listing to the right like a shopping cart with a gimp wheel. When I am old, I will saunter a bit like Clint Eastwood up the dusty main street of a forgotten lawless town.
I can’t put my head in Vladimir’s shoes, though believe me, I have tried. A shooting star, that man. Burning and falling like the flight of Autumn leaves, tumbling to the Earth, out of control, spinning with G-forces that I can only hope knocked him well unconscious before he burst into flames. I see him grinning though. I can’t help it, I do. I see him, wild-eyed, half-mad, but lucid enough and elated enough to know he’d broken orbit at least. He’d orbited the planet and broken the Karman line and truly entered OUTER SPACE. He had gone, boldly. He had gone, bravely. On wings of wax and desire, he had burst through the violent grip of gravity and known the weightless dawning of heavenly mystery. How can you not grin at that?
There’s bone loss in your right hip here. And here. This pounding on the right leg is traveling right up into your spine and you’re looking at a stress fracture around T10 or T11 if you keep this up. I don’t jog. Jogging is for Zumba instructors and washed up prize fighters. Road work, they call it. Laughable. If I wanted to mill around and get a little winded, I’d take up gardening or pickle ball, thank you very much. I run. I force myself to warm up (a single, hard-won concession to my doctor after many years of dismissal) and then I run until I bleed. I run until my lungs scream and my heart cries and I can feel the urgent pulse of an engine run to its redline in the very tips of my fingers. I run until I see stars. I run so fast my feet scarcely touch the pavement. I run until I feel wild, feral like an animal, racing to escape the pull of my own dreadful gravity.
We can feel pity for Vladimir Komarov. He was pushed into a suicide mission by a greedy State and strapped to an ACME rocket like Wile-E-Coyote and slingshotted into the stratosphere. They say he was resigned to his fate, but Vladimir knew what all the other cosmonauts and astronauts would report over and over again: Once you’ve been to space, nothing on Earth ever seems the same. Would you risk your life to touch that sun, Dear Icarus? Would you defy every convention and warning and plea and hurtle yourself into the inky blackness of stardust and a kaleidoscope of burning gas? How could you not?
How could you not?
This one is serious, Geoff. A resting tremor is serious. It could be Parkinson’s, it could be MS. It could be a tumor on your brain-stem. This isn’t your structure this time, it’s your central computer. We have a mechanic/fighter pilot relationship, my doctor and me. I come to him with what’s broken and he grudgingly tells me the best way to patch myself up so I can fly combat missions again. We don’t lie and, in many respects, it’s the most honest and intimate relationship I’ve had with anyone. We are straight with one another. Can I still run? I ask him. He crosses his arms in frustration and glares at me. That’s not the question you should be asking right now. But it is. In ways he could never understand, it may be the only question that still matters to me.
Have you ever experienced something so sublime that you weep when you think about it? Have you ever touched something so awesome in size and scope that you can only call it God? Have you ever longed for that again, so keenly, so fiercely, so absolutely, that you know in the very deepest part of yourself that you will likely die trying to recapture it? I have. I wasn’t shot into space on a Soviet ACME rocket. For me it was something so small it’s measured in micrograms, but over a decade later the effects still ripple through the entirety of my soul. I think Vladimir Komarov experienced it too. I think, despite our differences, that we are kindred spirits.