When Commander Vyacheslav Zudov and Flight Engineer Valeri Rozhdestvensky blasted off October 14, 1976, they did not expect to be back on Earth in just two days. The expectation was for them to link with Salyut 5 and break an in-space endurance record, which was 84 days at the time. But from the get-go, nothing went right.
The morning of the launch, the bus carrying the astronauts to the launch pad broke down. High-altitude winds forced the rocket off-course and the cosmonauts almost had to abort the mission then. They managed to achieve orbit somewhat lower than planned, but finally settled in orbit 168 miles.
They planned to dock with Salyut 5 on evening of October 15 but as the cosmonauts came within 4 miles of the station, Commander Zudov reported “strong lateral fluctuations” in the craft. At 500m, both men realized they would not be able to dock.
Zudov wanted to make a second attempt but were told they had used too much fuel settling into a lower altitude orbit and stabilizing the craft. They needed to reserve what fuel they had remaining for the return home. Not what they wanted to hear.
High winds and blizzard conditions carried them about 75 miles from the scheduled landing point. They braced themselves for a “splatdown” and were shocked when the landing terminated with a loud splash, in Lake Tengiz about 5 miles from shore. At night. Lake Tengiz is a large salt lake in Kazakhstan. The capsule lay on its side, which kept them from opening the hatch. Not that they wanted to since outside the temperature was -22° C.
A thick fog blocked the capsule’s beacon so rescue helicopters could not locate them. The salt water corrosion activated the explosive charges on the reserve chute, deploying it and allowing it to fill with water.