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11 days ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Caution On The Guardian Scoop

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The Guardian today has a document that may be from the uppermost reaches of the Russian government and purports to describe a meeting of Vladimir Putin’s security council in closed session.

The meeting was on January 22, 2016, and in it, Putin gave instructions to his spy agencies to support Donald Trump’s run for the presidency of the US.

Caution is due to these claims. The Guardian article itself is cautious, although it notes that Guardian reporters have validated the document to a limited degree. A meeting of the security council took place on that day. Experts have looked at the document and find it not obviously fraudulent.

There is a brief psychological assessment of Trump, who is described as an “impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual who suffers from an inferiority complex”.

There is also apparent confirmation that the Kremlin possesses kompromat, or potentially compromising material, on the future president, collected – the document says – from Trump’s earlier “non-official visits to Russian Federation territory”.

The paper refers to “certain events” that happened during Trump’s trips to Moscow. Security council members are invited to find details in appendix five, at paragraph five, the document states. It is unclear what the appendix contains.

“It is acutely necessary to use all possible force to facilitate his [Trump’s] election to the post of US president,” the paper says.

This document fits quite snugly into a narrative about Russian interference in the 2016 election. That could mean that, whether or not the material in it is true, it is part of a Russian disinformation operation.

Others on Twitter are urging caution.

That last thread doesn’t necessarily prove it’s a forgery. People mess up their writing in all languages.

There’s nothing definitive about the authenticity of the documents or whether they’re fakes. The Guardian might make more information available about how they got them, which could point to disinformation motives.

I suspect this one never will be fully clear by itself. It will be another case of people believing what they want to.

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14 days ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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The Truth Behind the Amazon Mystery Seeds

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Photographs by Ilona Szwarc

Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, sat atop his stallion Smokey and faced the camera. It was Saturday, August 1, 2020. Miller had a message to share.

“Good morning, patriots,” Miller began, raising the coiled lasso in his right hand by way of greeting. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of all these surprises coming out of China. First it was the Chinese virus, then we had the murder hornets, then we had to close the embassy in Houston because of espionage … Now we’ve got all these mystery seeds coming in in the mail.”

It was the seeds that Miller wanted to speak about. By then, news of the seeds had been circulating for several days. Packets were turning up at homes across the United States; residents of every state would eventually report receiving them. Their address labels and Customs declarations indicated that they had been sent from China. The contents were usually described as an item of jewelry—something like “rose stud earrings”—but inside would be a small packet of unidentified seeds. There was no evident reason why particular people were receiving particular seeds, or why people were receiving seeds at all.

Miller advised anyone who received one of these packages to handle it with extreme care. “Treat them like they’re radioactive,” he said. As Smokey flicked his tail, the commissioner laid out what he considered to be the worst-case scenario: “My greatest fear is that someone will open these packages up—open these seeds up—and be infected with a new virus of some kind.” If you found yourself in possession of such a package, Miller said, you should email him immediately, and he would send an inspector to pick it up.

“You don’t want to cry wolf unless there’s a wolf at the door,” Miller told me when I called recently, “but I have a $100 billion industry here just in Texas to protect.” In the face of something so odd, Miller’s instincts arced toward suspicion.

“We didn’t know what in the world was going on,” he said.

Listen to Chris Heath discuss this piece on the Experiment podcast.

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If someone had wanted to invent a surreal provocation designed to unnerve Americans in the summer of 2020, it’s difficult to conceive of a better one than a deluge of unsolicited Chinese seeds. For one thing, in those first months of the coronavirus pandemic, references to China triggered associations—rational or otherwise—with contagion. For another, these objects were invading private spaces at a time when most of us were newly hypersensitive to our surroundings. And what was happening was something that was hard to explain, in a moment when so many fears that might have once seemed far-fetched were either being realized or, at the very least, suddenly sounding plausible.

Even people who considered themselves above the lure of alarmist theories had to take the seeds seriously. Irrespective of why they were appearing at people’s homes, their very existence—as biological matter of unknown origin—constituted a problem. This reality acted as a narrative anchor for what might otherwise have seemed to be fanciful media stories. The government genuinely was concerned. Whenever someone wanted to tell the story of these Chinese seeds, a local or federal agriculture spokesperson was always available to expound on how unknown seeds of foreign origin were, until proved otherwise, a threat to American agriculture or even the whole North American ecosystem. Advice soon circulated that the seeds should not be planted, burned, or even disposed of in the trash, given the possibility that they could germinate and disseminate from a landfill. And if you received any, the government would definitely like to know about it.

This combination of factors—a mystery, multiple anxiety triggers within the perpetual panic chamber we live in, and a bedrock empirical reason this had to be taken seriously—encouraged a proliferation of wild theories. Here, for instance, are some of the explanations that I saw floated, for the most part not at the rabidly conspiratorial fringes of the internet, but on gardening-group and state-agriculture-department Facebook pages: that the seeds were Chinese bioweapons, laced with viruses or poisons, or that they were engineered through genetic manipulation or nanotechnology (threads picked up in a Tucker Carlson Tonight segment with the chyron COULD MYSTERIOUS SEEDS BE BIOLOGICAL ATTACK?); that they were part of a “deep state” strategy to control our gardens, or a false-flag operation to discredit China; that they were a Chinese cure for COVID-19 suppressed by Big Pharma; and that they would grow to feed swarms of invasive murder hornets.

A year later, however, no monstrous mystery vines are strangling America’s cornfields. The seeds mostly stopped coming, and the world moved on. But I wanted to know: What was it all about? So I decided to reimmerse myself in the giddy anxiety of last summer. I planned to speak with some of those who had received the packages, dissect the hullabaloo around them, and construct the definitive account of the seeds-from-China moral panic.

It seemed straightforward enough. I had no idea.

It is perhaps ironic, given how many people assumed that America was being targeted, that news of the seeds appears to have first surfaced in the United Kingdom.

On the morning of June 5, a woman named Sue Westerdale, who lives in a small town in northern England, posted in the Facebook group “Veg gardening UK” about something peculiar. She had received a mysterious packet of seeds from China, described on the envelope as “ear studs,” and wondered whether this had happened to anyone else.

John Roberts, a retired railway worker who lives 100 miles to the south, replied within the hour; he’d gotten some seeds the previous week. He’d called the local police, who came and picked them up, telling Roberts they’d investigate the seeds and then burn them. Other stories followed.

Over the next few weeks, these British gardeners became exasperated. Amid plenty of thoughtful debate and the occasional xenophobic comment (less than 10 hours after Westerdale’s post, someone wrote: “I reckon it’s some kind of covert biological thing from China that will affect all our plant life and we’ll all die of starvation, then China will take over the world”), there was a sense of frustration that something important was going on and no one was listening. People in “Veg gardening UK” and other groups contacted the British agricultural authorities. They contacted celebrity gardeners and members of Parliament. They contacted the media. One person, tweeting under the name Tinkerpuss I will NOT be silenced! (apparently a beautician named Charlotte), was particularly vociferous, firing urgent messages at British newspapers, to no effect.

Credit for finally breaking the story circles back to the Westerdale household. Sue’s husband, Bob, used to be a crime reporter and is now a freelance writer. At first, when his wife told him about the seeds, he didn’t think too much of it. He was used to all kinds of packages turning up at their home; maybe his wife had just forgotten that she’d ordered the seeds. As the weeks passed, though, Bob started to pay more attention. He noticed what people were writing online, and began to wonder whether there might be a sellable angle here, in the way the seeds grafted onto fears of infection. “As a news story, I thought that might speed it on its way, if I’m honest,” he told me—“you know, feeding on that anti-China paranoia.”

Bob pitched the story to an old colleague, Richard Marsden, who works at the Daily Mail. Marsden did some of his own reporting, and on July 18 a small item appeared. “Gardeners Sent Sinister Seed Packs From China,” the headline read, introducing the idea that what was happening was both a puzzle and a threat.

A woman looks at news on a computer screen, with seeds magnified on her desk.

These “sinister seed packs” were also arriving at American homes—the U.S. Department of Agriculture would retroactively date the earliest related package that it was aware of to June 2. Aside from a few bemused comments online, though, there’s little indication that anyone took too much notice until Lori Culley, a grandmother in Tooele, Utah, just west of Salt Lake City, succeeded in sounding the alarm.

Culley has an autoimmune disease and avoids leaving her house, so she’s accustomed to receiving most of what she needs by mail. But one package that showed up in the middle of July was a surprise. It appeared to have come from China, and its contents were described as an ornament, though one perhaps hitherto unknown in the gem trade: “Dogweed Stud earrings.” Inside were largish, almost bulblike brown seeds. Culley wrapped two in a wet napkin and left them on her windowsill. “I was going to see what grew,” she told me.

A couple of days later, on July 21, a second package arrived. This one, its contents described just as “jewelry,” contained tiny near-black seeds. Now Culley was worried. That evening, she posted photos of the seeds and their packaging on Facebook, alongside a photograph of the Daily Mail article, which she had found online.

Within a few hours, eight people had commented to say that they, too, had received seeds. Culley also posted in a Facebook group that she had started in April for, as she characterized it, “ladies going through what I was going through: COVID, I live alone, we’re just depressed.” More voices chimed in.

Something weird was happening, Culley told me, something that felt potentially dangerous. She used to work as a supply specialist for the Army, she explained, and when she took that job, she also took an oath to “always protect my country.” Now she felt she was duty bound to act.

She reached out to the local university-extension office, where agriculture experts offer advice. But she felt like they brushed off her concerns. Undeterred, she DMed four local TV stations on Facebook. Three didn’t respond. The fourth, Fox 13, replied immediately.

A reporter named Adam Herbets was assigned the story. He called Culley to arrange an interview. Herbets also reached out to an entomologist he knew at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. By the time Herbets arrived at Culley’s house, an official was already there to pick up everything Culley had. (This was now five packs of seeds, including three dropped off by Culley’s daughter, Kacee, quite independently a recipient too.)

For the Fox 13 cameraman, Culley acted out picking up her mail—the traditional camera-angle-from-the-inside-of-the-mailbox shot—then stood, masked, on her porch, talking about the seeds. “We just can’t be too vigilant,” she said. “There’s too much crazy stuff going on in our world anymore, and a lot of it’s coming from China.”

Two days later, on July 24, the first official statements began to appear on state agricultural websites, advising the public about what was happening and what they should do. The advice was sometimes contradictory. The Washington State Department of Agriculture initially counseled that if the seeds were double-bagged, they could be placed in the trash, while Utah proposed killing the seeds by “baking them at 200 degrees for 40 minutes.” Soon the advice coalesced: The seeds should be sent to a state facility or picked up by state officials.

Whatever was going on, the USDA was determined to be on top of it. “Early detection is of fundamental importance,” says Osama El-Lissy, the deputy administrator of the Plant Protection and Quarantine Program in the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the man who headed up the response. Within days—in the same period that a cavalcade of local and national media stories appeared—the agency’s count of the mystery packets jumped from a dozen to more than 1,000. In most cases, the seeds were collected state by state and then forwarded to one of 13 federal facilities. Those from New York, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois, and Wisconsin arrived at an inspection station at JFK International Airport for the attention of Keith E. Clancy, a botanist and identifier.

Wearing a face mask and latex gloves, Clancy examined what was inside each packet, either with a hand lens or under a microscope. He has been doing this job for 17 years, and most of the seeds he could identify by sight. They were beans, melons, cucumbers, marigolds, sunflowers, peas, lentils, carrots, radishes, kale, cabbages, ornamental grasses, roses, morning glories, and many other plants. They kept coming and coming. (To date, government botanists have identified some 560 different species from these seed packets.)

Clancy was on the lookout for contaminants. One day, he found four seeds of dodder, parasitic plants that can choke crops such as carrots and potatoes—but nothing to make the USDA tremble.

The few seeds Clancy could not identify, he forwarded to national botanists in Maryland. There, they did molecular testing that could pick up evidence of any viruses, bacteria, or other organisms. They grew the seeds in their quarantined facilities, looking for any signs that they may have been genetically modified. They also mapped where the seeds had been sent, looking for any correlation with crucial agricultural infrastructure or key natural resources. “We have one of the most sophisticated safeguarding systems, probably in the world,” El-Lissy told me. If something nefarious was happening, they were doing all they could to find it.  

The one rule on which there was consensus from the beginning was this: Do not plant the seeds. Problem was, some people already had. The poster child for this—insomuch as a 70-something retiree from the oil and gas industry can be a poster child—was a man named Doyle Crenshaw.

Crenshaw, who lives in Booneville, Arkansas, was watching Channel 5 in late July 2020 when he saw an item about Chinese seeds. He knew just what they were talking about. A couple of months earlier, he’d received precisely such a package: “studded earrings,” Chinese writing on the envelope, light-colored seeds inside. They’d arrived at the same time as some “exotic zinnia seeds” that Crenshaw had ordered, but he hadn’t a clue what these other seeds were. He thought, Well, I’ll just plant them, see what happens.

He cleared some space in the raised beds where he and his wife grew lettuce and tomatoes, and every couple of weeks applied a booster of MiracleGro. That seemed to work. First came bright-green five-lobed leaves, then orange flowers, and then some strange kind of fruit that started out greenish but soon turned off-white.

“I ain’t never seen anything it looked like,” Crenshaw told me. “It was about 14 inches long and four or five inches round.” He broke one open; its flesh smelled sweet. His grandson wanted to taste it, but Crenshaw vetoed this. “Nah, better not.”

Crenshaw dutifully contacted Channel 5. It was hardly surprising that the station, upon hearing that a local man had not only planted mystery seeds but now had fully grown plants laden with mystery fruit, was interested. Crenshaw was filmed standing next to the plants, explaining about the MiracleGro and how “they just started growing crazy.” As the camera panned over the leaves, a voice-over explained: “Experts are unsure what this plant really is, but the concern is it turning out to be an invasive species, which could hurt local agriculture.”

After the segment aired, “I was a celebrity in town—everybody recognized me,” Crenshaw told me. Reporters started calling from “Dallas, Mississippi, Oklahoma City, Kansas, Canada … one from France.”

Eventually, he’d had enough. “It got to bugging me,” he said, “having to talk so much on the phone … It’s the same story every time—it ain’t going to change.” Crenshaw told me all this quite amiably, as though the experience had confirmed that there are kinds of absurdity out in the world that he had previously only suspected.

It was Crenshaw’s doctor who told him that he was famous on the internet. That was true, though if Crenshaw had looked closely, he might not have liked what he saw. One easy way to spin this tale was to cast Crenshaw in the role of the fool—the naive rural fool. No matter that Crenshaw had planted the seeds long before there was any specific advice not to, or that he was far from alone. The Arkansas Plant Industries Division told me that it dug up plants in about 30 such cases. At one point, the state was deploying 25 agriculture inspectors, 13 Bureau of Standards inspectors, five pest-control inspectors, and two inspectors of honeybee apiaries to deal with these seeds and any resulting plants.

An official bagged up Crenshaw’s mystery plants and took them away. A few days later, Crenshaw received a call from Little Rock, letting him know that what he’d been growing had been identified: It was Chinese watermelon. To be precise, Benincasa hispida, a vine whose fruit is also known as a wax gourd or winter melon.

By the time officials came to pick up the plants, Crenshaw had received a second unsolicited packet of the same seeds. He handed them over as well. Three days after that, a third packet arrived. What did he figure was going on?

“Oh, I had no idea,” he told me affably, as though I were wasting both his time and mine by asking. “Nor did I care.”

Magnified seeds with X-rayed seeds behind them

Doyle Crenshaw was one of the most prominent seed recipients, but plenty of others enjoyed or endured a moment of celebrity last summer. I spoke with several, but the most remarkable story I found came from a woman named Chris Alwhite, who had posted a single sentence on the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s Facebook page: “I have about 50 of these packs from china.” Before I contacted her, I presumed that this would turn out to be a joke, or an exaggeration. I certainly didn’t imagine that it would be true.

And it wasn’t—or not exactly. After the seeds stopped arriving, toward the end of last year, Alwhite gathered all the packets, put them in a big plastic Walmart bag, and stashed them in a drawer in her Shreveport home. At my request, she opened the bag and counted the packages as I stayed on the phone. It took a while.

“Five hundred nineteen,” she eventually declared.

Alwhite explained that the seeds began to arrive in early 2020. She was a member of Facebook gifting groups, a phenomenon in which people socialize online and buy one another items from their Amazon wish lists. On her list, Alwhite had maybe 25 different vegetable, fruit, and flower seeds—“when my grandbabies had come up for the summer, I had promised them a big garden,” she explained to me—so she wasn’t surprised when seed packets started arriving. But she soon realized that something wasn’t right.

As she understood it, items sent via the gifting group would come with a name, or, if the donor wanted to stay anonymous, a barcode so that you could thank your benefactor without knowing who they were. But the packets Alwhite received, labeled as jewelry or wire connectors, had none of those details. And they just kept coming—three or four or five a day. For some reason, Alwhite had become what we might term a super-receiver.

“It went on for months and months and months,” she said. “I just stopped opening them.” Last July, when she heard that others were receiving seeds, she contacted the Louisiana agriculture department. That call didn’t go the way it was supposed to. “They were like, ‘Oh, it’s a hoax … Plant them or toss them, do what you want,’” Alwhite recalled. “That’s Louisiana for you.”

She didn’t follow the advice (which directly contradicted the agency’s public statements asking people to mail the seeds to state labs). “I have pets!” she told me. “For all I know, it’s going to be some eight-foot-tall Venus flytrap in my house. I’m going to come home from the grocery store and find my cats and my dogs all missing.”

I described Alwhite’s experience to El-Lissy; he said that the USDA would be keen to examine her seeds. They would join all the other unexplained seed packages the USDA has gathered since last summer—a collection that, as of June, numbers 19,841. Once all the investigations are completed, perhaps some will be kept for future reference, or be added to the department’s seed library, or be used for training. Anything that is not needed will be incinerated—“the most proper way,” El-Lissy said, “of destroying things like that.”

In late July 2020, a retired postal worker from Massachusetts shared a thought on Twitter:

The 2020 election assistance Trump said he would accept if available is coming RIGHT NOW, not DIRECTLY from China but from surrogates—probably poor Chinese citizens desperate for income. They are mailing seeds to US residents/voters in order to further undermine mail in voting.

Others echoed him:

“China did this to find out which US addresses were still valid for mail-in and absentee ballots!”

“Communist China will mail millions of fake ballots. They already did their test run with toxic seeds to ALL 50 states.”

There were plenty of problems with this theory, beyond the fact that there was no evidence it was true. For instance: If the seeds were related to the U.S. election, why send them to other countries? Why deliver them to all 50 states, most of which would be electorally irrelevant? And what specifically could be achieved—for all the talk of test runs and undermining—by successfully shipping packages to American addresses?

Perhaps that’s why this particular delusion never took hold. But people kept looking for dramatic explanations, as if only something extraordinary could explain something so odd.

And yet one of the strangest parts of the mystery-seeds-from-China panic is that there was never much doubt about why these seeds were sent. The consensus, right from the start, among many government officials, journalists, and comment-section know-it-alls, was that the seeds were probably part of a mundane, illicit e-commerce strategy commonly known as a brushing scam.

Although brushing is a fairly banal form of e-commerce chicanery, it’s also weirdly complicated, counterintuitive, and tricky to explain. Let me try.

In one common, modern-day form, it operates something like this: Chinese companies compete for the highest placements in search listings on e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and AliExpress. Although the algorithms behind these rankings are secret, they are presumed to be affected by volume of sales and positive customer feedback. Some companies try to manipulate the rankings by inventing fake transactions. They, or most likely subcontractors, set up accounts using people’s real names and addresses. The companies then pretend to send something of value to those addresses and post fake glowing reviews under the recipients’ names.

All well and good, in its own crooked way, except that some platforms verify such transactions by requiring tracking data showing that a package has indeed traveled from the company to the customer’s address. That’s where the seeds come in. For the scam to work, a real package needs to be sent. But instead of the more valuable item the company is pretending to have sold, something cheap is substituted—hair ties, say, or plastic trinkets.

Or—it appeared—seeds. If this was brushing, the fact that seeds were being sent was more or less incidental. The seeds might still represent a biological threat—e-commerce hucksters are hardly likely to have researched which species might be appropriately imported into different parts of the United States—but only a haphazard one, not a targeted attempt to disrupt American agriculture, never mind anything more sinister.

These dots don’t seem to have been particularly hard to connect. On July 28, 2020, the USDA said, “At this time, we don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a ‘brushing scam.’” Brushing was referred to or described in almost every American news story I have mentioned, even if sometimes as a party pooper turning up to undermine all the melodrama. Sid Miller referred to it in his August 1 horseback video; a guest on Tucker Carlson’s show referred to it the night before; the broadcast that Doyle Crenshaw saw on Arkansas’s Channel 5 on July 27 covered it; the technique was even briefly described in Fox 13’s segment on Lori Culley back on July 22.

Even weeks before that, sundry members of the public appeared to have worked it out for themselves:

TheRealEvanG, on Reddit, June 22: “Sounds like your relative might have been the victim of a brushing scam.”

Becca Clair, on “Veg gardening UK,” June 24: “There’s not really anything to investigate I’m afraid. It’s a well known scam called brushing, and has been going on for years.”

If true, this raises a different question, one that may be more about contemporary media storytelling than agronomic perils: How and why was the great Chinese-seed mystery of the summer of 2020 ever allowed to seem like a mystery at all?

As I tried to figure out what happened last summer, I came across one place where two opposing forces—the imperative of telling the simple, apparent truth, and the impulse toward the rich gratifications of fever and froth—ran up against each other in a way that I found unexpectedly delightful: the Facebook page of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

This page had somehow become the clearinghouse for reports of seeds from all over the country; a single matter-of-fact post on July 24 received more than 22,000 comments. People shared photos; people shared jokes (“who had magic seeds on their 2020 apocalypse bingo card?”); people freaked out. And, with calmness and fortitude, the page’s moderator strove to moderate:

Jessica Williams: “They need to call it what it is!!! Terrorism!”

Washington State Department of Agriculture: “USDA has no indication that it is anything other than a ‘brushing’ scam.”

Stacie Turner: “Biowarfare via CCP that could cross germinate with our crops and contaminate the food supply?”

Washington State Department of Agriculture: “More likely a ‘brushing’ scam.”

Patty Stroe: “Read the article, that’s what the USDA believes, that the seeds are to sabotage our agriculture.”

Washington State Department of Agriculture: “That is NOT what the article says. USDA believes this could be a ‘brushing’ scam.”

Petulisa Havili-Wolf: “… disguised biological or chemical attack?”

Washington State Department of Agriculture: “USDA doesn’t have any evidence that it is anything other than a ‘brushing scam.’”

The dialogue reads like a morality play: a lone figure heroically, perhaps forlornly, armed only with logic and patience, holding back the horde. I wanted to know who this person was, so I emailed a public-engagement specialist at the agriculture department.

“That was me,” Karla Salp replied.

Salp explained that she was hired almost six years ago, when the department was preparing to spray an organic pesticide across 10,000 acres, including in Seattle and Tacoma, to combat gypsy moths. She has experience dealing with upset people in delicate situations, she said, and with anti-Asian sentiment (“a lot of the pests have unfortunate names—Asian giant hornet, Japanese beetle, Asian gypsy moth”). She said she tries to respond accurately and positively, and stay out of arguments. Answer by answer it is work that, in its own quiet way, has a certain valiance:

Charles Mitchell: “Is this some kind of agriculture warfare from China? Smart yet scary.”

Washington State Department of Agriculture: “Probably not. Could be a ‘brushing’ scam.”

If I may, a few notes about brushing:

Brushing is illegal in China, but has been around for many years. (Its name seems to derive from the sense of brushing something clean, a linguistic cousin to money laundering.) Companies have developed cat-and-mouse techniques to evade ever more sophisticated detection. In a 2015 academic paper, “E-commerce Reputation Manipulation: The Emergence of Reputation-Escalation-as-a-Service,” researchers provided a snapshot of brushing within China. Over a two-month period, they found evidence of 219,165 fake transactions by more than 11,000 vendors (or “insincere sellers,” the paper’s lovely phrase). Back then, many companies purchased a mail-tracking label without actually sending a package. When physical packages were sent, some were empty or contained only tissues. But in recent years, judging from the many, many online comments I came across from American consumers who appeared to have been brushing recipients, the phony cargo seems to have evolved.         

I was fascinated by the bizarre, random scope of what was mentioned—this cascade of gratuitous debris. But I was also struck by how those receiving the items described them. People know what to feel when you take something from them. But when you give them something they don’t want, it’s confusing. You could read their baffled reactions as some kind of free-form poem about consumerism:

“My husband got a package from China that had a pair of white ankle socks for women” … “We received a shoe sole. So strange all these packages” … “two white masks from china that I did not order … I threw them away” … “Got one with a golf ball inside … threw it right away and washed hands” … “a tiny bottle of shampoo” … “a fidget spinner” … “a toy camera, no joke” … “Baby socks. I am old. I don’t have babies nor baby grandchildren” … “I didn’t get seeds but I did get junky, plastic, creepy little cars” … “it sounds funny but it was pretty creepy they were like mini ballerina socks” … “I got mascara, trashed it” … “Sleepy Time TEA … I laughed and said NOT TODAY China” … “a mysterious plastic soap dish from china” … “a travel tooth brush i I didn’t order” … “I came back from a trip a month ago and had 6 small packages waiting for me, each containing one single hair tie” … “I have received random things from China in the past, a marble ! a bead ! and a length of ribbon ! none of which I ordered … I didn’t have anyone to tell about my marble!!! It was blue.”

As the unexpected seed packets kept arriving at homes across the country, American officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies reached out to their Chinese counterparts. According to the USDA’s El-Lissy, the Chinese authorities were very cooperative: “They emphasized to these companies that this is a prohibited activity and they should stop immediately.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection also upped its efforts to detect and intercept such packages. Meanwhile, the USDA led discussions with Amazon and other e-commerce platforms. Amazon announced in September that plants, plant products, and seeds could no longer be imported into the United States. Its competitor Wish did likewise, citing the “ongoing threat to U.S. consumers.”

Some combination of these efforts was apparently effective. By late last year, the seed packets slowed to a trickle. Problem solved, it seemed, and mystery solved too. Brushing was an explanation that, for all its odd contours, made sense—and just as important, nothing else did. As El-Lissy reaffirmed to me this April, “We are not able to think of other reasons behind this event, aside from the brushing scam, at this time.”

Even so, I felt there was more to know. For instance: Why had the scammers pivoted, sometime in the first half of 2020, to using seeds? Brushing works only if it stays under the radar. As a continuation of an underhanded e-commerce strategy, this choice would seem to be catastrophically counterproductive. (Indeed, I found articles on Chinese websites ruing the attention that these mystery seed packets were attracting, and how they were messing up the business for all involved.) It also seemed implausible that hundreds of different brushing operators had simultaneously hit on this same new strategy. Maybe there was a single enormous operator? When I floated this theory to El-Lissy, he said he couldn’t speculate, and that the USDA was continuing to investigate.

If this was brushing, surely there was somewhere else I could turn to for answers: the companies whose rankings were being manipulated by all this laborious artifice—the e-commerce platforms themselves. If I provided a company with a seed package used for brushing on its platform, it should be able to trace who sent the package, and whether someone had posted an associated review—either of the seeds or of a seemingly unrelated, more expensive item.

I started with the market leader, Amazon. In media reports last summer, Amazon was quoted claiming that it had looked into some of these seed packages and had found that they were genuine Amazon orders delayed by COVID-19. I didn’t take this very seriously. It certainly didn’t tally with what I’d heard, over and over again. While I’d read about some people who had ordered seeds and were subsequently upset because they hadn’t expected them to come from China, or for them to come masquerading as jewelry, many more said they had never ordered the seeds at all. The USDA believes that most, if not all, of its 19,841 packages fit this pattern.

I assumed that Amazon would have come around to this reality, but when I contacted the company in March, I was astonished to hear that its position hadn’t changed: As far as it was concerned, any Amazon packages involved had contained real, delayed orders. I didn’t try very hard to hide how implausible I found this, and my next move seemed obvious. I proposed that I’d supply examples for Amazon to check out, ones I was confident would not match its narrative. My hope was that, once we’d established that people had received seeds they hadn’t ordered, Amazon would work with me to explain further.

None of these mystery packages bore the name or logo of Amazon or any other e-commerce company, but many, I realized, provided a clue: an encrypted phone number on the address label that would turn out to be one of a library of such numbers that Amazon uses to track packages while masking consumers’ contact information. Either these were genuine Amazon packages or someone was taking the trouble to make them seem so.

Lori Culley, the grandmother from Utah who first alerted the American media, seemed the perfect test case. Her two packages carried these telltale Amazon numbers, so with her permission, I sent the company her information.

And that’s when things got really weird.

Culley ordered those seeds herself, Amazon told me. I took this with a grain of salt. Culley had mentioned that she had bought seeds much earlier in the year, and this matched a pattern I’d observed—that many people who received mystery seeds had previously made genuine seed orders. Maybe, I speculated, the brushers thought it made sense to send something that the recipients were used to receiving.

I assumed that Amazon was speciously linking these different events. I asked Culley to go into her order history and pull out her invoices, so we could show that the seeds she knew she had ordered had been delivered long before the mystery seeds arrived.

What she found was not what she—or I—expected.

On April 25, Culley had ordered three packets of seeds from three different sellers: 100 clematis-flower seeds from C-Pioneer for $1.99, 100 clematis-vine seeds from zhang-yubryy for $1.53, and 25 wisteria seeds from DIANHzu1 for $1.99. Unbeknownst to Culley, these sellers were all Chinese, based in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Changsha, respectively. Each seller had more negative reviews than positive ones, many complaining about seeds that were delayed, or hadn’t arrived, or had arrived identified as jewelry. And crucially, Culley’s three April orders, the records showed, had not been shipped until between June 15, 2020, and July 7, 2020.

Further corroboration came when I sent this new information to Terry Freeman, the manager of the seed lab at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. She had tentatively identified Culley’s seeds as amaranth and pongam tree. But now, knowing what Culley had ordered, she agreed that the larger seeds—the ones Culley had tried to germinate on her windowsill—were probably wisteria. At least one packet seemed to be exactly what Culley had paid for.         

This sent me into something of a tailspin. Initially, I had dismissed Amazon’s explanation, and I had cherry-picked Culley’s experience to prove the company wrong. That had backfired. But surely what Amazon was saying couldn’t be generally true? How could so many people have ordered seeds and then forgotten? And why would so many seed packets start arriving in a sudden surge?

Now I was shocked to realize that I could see exactly how it may have happened.

Consider this scenario:

1. In the early days of shutdowns, when people were spending an unusual amount of time in—and focused on—their homes and gardens, many ordered seeds online. This is clearly true. There were seed shortages, and according to the Home Garden Seed Association, order volumes were eight to 10 times greater than those in the previous year.

2. Many bought seeds from Chinese companies without knowing it. This seems likely enough. Plenty of evidence shows that China-based merchants were selling seeds online. And while e-commerce companies such as Amazon do post details of where vendors are based, the information isn’t obvious or easy to find. Plus, these seeds typically cost less than $3. Few people, I imagine, would suspect that something so cheap could come from so far away.           

3. These springtime orders were not delivered; then, in June or July, they were suddenly delivered in great numbers. It seems perfectly plausible that a buildup of orders during China’s extremely strict shutdowns could have led to a large volume of seed packages being sent in the summer, when those shutdowns were substantially lifted.

4. Recipients in America, in the many thousands, didn’t connect the packages they received with orders they had made earlier. This is the hardest part to explain. How could so many people fail to make the association? I can think of a few reasons, many of them mutually reinforcing: the protracted lag time; the disruption of the pandemic; the bewilderment at receiving a package from a country you hadn’t knowingly ordered anything from; the absence of the usual paperwork; seeds that were unidentified and had no planting instructions; the disorienting way the packages were misidentified as jewelry (probably a tactic to get around Customs controls restricting foreign seed sales); and the predisposition, as soon as “unsolicited seeds from China” became a news story, to connect these puzzling packages with that dramatic narrative rather than with a button clicked many months before.

Still, I was uncomfortable with where this logic led. I now had to ask: Could it be possible that during the seeds-from-China fever of 2020, the most delusional theory of all was actually brushing?

I knew it would take only one good counterexample to blow a hole in this forgotten-orders theory, so I continued looking for one. Chris Alwhite seemed like a golden candidate. No one, I was quite sure, forgets ordering 519 seed packets.

This time, after spotting what looked like Amazon numbers on some of the packages, I asked her to go through her order history first. It showed that she had indeed ordered seeds back in May 2020—five times in total. Two orders, from American companies, appear to have shipped quite quickly, but the three she had inadvertently ordered from Chinese sellers (Bravet, Mosichi, and the catchily named PPYPYPYPYPZ) weren’t shipped until many weeks later.

That didn’t come close to explaining the 519 packets. But after I approached Amazon, the situation got only more complicated. The most likely explanation did relate to gifting groups. At least some of the packages were sent to Alwhite as gifts (while the five seed orders she had placed herself were actually sent as gifts to other people). Alwhite’s belief that such packages would always include a barcode or information identifying them as gifts turned out to be mistaken. Why she received quite so many seeds remains bewildering, but given the link between at least some of these seeds and real orders, her case no longer seemed to offer clear indications of brushing.

I moved on to Shayne Duggan, a technical writer for a software company in New Hampshire who’d received seeds on July 20, two days before the first American media story. Her package was labeled “stud earring,” and the return address seemed less a postal coordinate than a clue from some magical-realist fable: “North side of the west gate of South China Avenue, Longgang District, Shenzhen.” Baffled and perturbed, Duggan reached out to a friend who works as a botanist, and he shared the story on botanist bulletin boards. Duggan received more seeds a few days later.

I asked Duggan to check her Amazon order history. And once again, there it was. On April 9, Duggan had ordered 350 Organic Blend Seeds Gourmet Lettuce Unique Tasty Mix, then the following day Garden100 Multicolor Tomato Seeds.

Duggan was somewhat abashed when it all came back to her. “That was, as my kids call it, the OG pandemic, the original pandemic, when we were baking and sewing and doing all that kind of stuff … We weren’t going anywhere; we weren’t seeing anyone; we were hunkered down. That was the mode we were in, and that was the impetus: Oh, maybe I’ll plant some seeds.” When they didn’t come, she forgot all about them, and bought some young lettuces and tomatoes at a plant sale instead. When, months later, the mystery seeds from China arrived, she did momentarily wonder about her previous order, but was too thrown off by the weirdness of the packages to imagine that a sufficient explanation.

These are just three examples, of course. But I’d selected them precisely because I’d thought they were the most likely to establish that brushing may have taken place. It was now clear to me that at least some of these packets were definitely forgotten orders.

It’s not logically impossible for both explanations to be correct: that some packages were brushing and some were delayed orders. But it is hugely improbable. What are the odds that, last summer, two completely different scenarios led to a simultaneous surge in the same weird-looking Chinese seed packages arriving at American homes?

A researcher and I spent a month tracking down more seed recipients, trying to find someone whose experience punctured the forgotten-orders theory. Looking for signs of brushing, we tried to investigate as wide a range of packages as possible whose recipients believed that the seeds had arrived unsolicited. Not every package’s story fit the same pattern. Sometimes the evidence suggested that the seeds had spent months in transit. Sometimes the seeds received didn’t seem to match those that had been ordered. A few didn’t even come from China, but from nearby countries, such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. A few appeared to be connected with other e-commerce platforms, though as hard as we looked for these, the lion’s share of what we found was associated with Amazon.

We couldn’t always come to a definitive conclusion. Some of the people we contacted either didn’t have or didn’t want to share the packaging or records required to understand the seeds’ history. But, again and again, people who started out confident about what had happened to them, many of whom were bemused by our requests to search through their old orders, would invariably find something. (Even Sue Westerdale, the “Veg gardening UK” Facebook poster who had first raised the alarm, and who was initially quite dismissive when contacted about this possible narrative, eventually unearthed an April order for “colorful flower meadow seeds,” its shipping date delayed until June.) In fact, in every single case that we were able to research fully, we found a convincing connection between a mystery package and an earlier order.

Despite the evidence, some seed recipients remained skeptical about the scenario we were describing, and they were not the only ones. A month after El-Lissy told me that the USDA was not able to think of any other reasons behind this event apart from brushing, I presented the agency with just such a reason: my forgotten-orders theory. I wanted to know whether the USDA had any direct evidence of brushing, or had verified that anyone had received seeds they had not ordered. The answer was no, with the proviso that the department is involved in an ongoing investigation into the seeds, in tandem with other government agencies, including Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Postal Service. The USDA spokesperson was not able to share any more details about that investigation, and reminded me that the agency’s focus is on stopping this agricultural threat, not on proving why it happened.

Nevertheless, the USDA clearly remained unconvinced by my arguments. El-Lissy reiterated to me that the agency still thought all the circumstantial evidence pointed to brushing. “We continue to believe it is implausible,” he said, “that thousands of people around the globe ordered seeds and either forgot about them or lied about forgetting them.”

I don’t think that anyone lied. And I certainly don’t rule out there being messier aspects to what happened last summer that remain to be uncovered. Maybe some people will read this story and check their own order history, and new patterns will emerge.

But I believe, on balance, that people probably did forget. Or, to put it another way, that they may have never been fully aware of what they did in the first place. Few of us truly understand the machines and systems at our disposal; we click a button and move on. Meanwhile, tens or hundreds or thousands of miles away, something starts to happen. Steps are taken, wheels are set into motion, decisions—and perhaps mistakes—are made. By the time the distorted ripples of cause and effect make their way back to us, we may no longer recognize that we were the ones who threw a stone into the water.  

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15 days ago
This did not go in the direction I expected. Delightful.
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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The Filibuster Should Be Like What’s Happening Now in Texas

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott announces the reopening of more Texas businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Monday, May 18, 2020. Abbott said that childcare facilities, youth camps, some professional sports, and bars may now begin to fully or partially reopen their facilities as outlined by regulations listed on the Open Texas website. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News Pool)

We're witnessing another of these state legislators abscond across state lines dramas in Texas. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it hearkens back to a similar drama in 2003 which presaged much of our current politics. But I'd like to take this in a different direction. What we're seeing right now with these efforts to short-circuit the legislative process is what the legislative filibuster in the Senate should be like. Now, I'm not suggesting that we move to a system where Senators run off to Canada or I guess in some cases Russia. It gets a bit more complicated in jurisdictional terms. But Texas Democrats clearly believe these laws are of an extraordinary character. Texas legislative Democrats get outvoted all the time. But they this law as different from other laws they oppose. And most critically their actions are public and self-limiting.
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17 days ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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50 years later: Remembering the mission, sacrifice of the Soyuz 11 crew

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On the morning of June 30, 1971, near sunrise on the steppes of Kazakhstan, recovery crews prepared to receive the crew of Soyuz 11, which had completed a successful 24-day mission to the world’s first space station: Salyut 1. The Soviet leadership and public were eager to welcome cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev home after they broke the world spaceflight endurance record of 18 days, set a year earlier by their countrymen aboard Soyuz 9.

The Soyuz 11 descent module’s parachute system started to deploy as planned, at approximately 10 kilometers in altitude, and the main parachute deployed nominally. There had not been communications with the crew since before the deorbit burn, but ground crews were preparing for what they expected would be a nominal return from orbit.

The descent module completed a nominal touchdown at the landing site east of Dzhezkazgan, an area still used today for Soyuz landings. The spacecraft landed on its side on a beautiful day with a clear sky with recovery forces in a good position to receive the crew. The recovery teams proceeded to safe the spacecraft and opened the hatch.

What they found inside Soyuz 11 would shock and devastate them, with severe consequences to the Soviet program, and would spawn safety modifications and equipment that are in use in the present day.

Soyuz 11’s three person crew were dead.

Soyuz 11

The Salyut project, to launch the world’s first orbiting space station for crews to visit, live in, and conduct research on had been approved by the Soviet program in the wake of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Since the Soviets had lost the race to land humans on the Moon and were having serious problems with their N-1 heavy lift rocket needed for their own lunar landing missions, they decided to focus on other space firsts that they could get ahead of the Americans.

The Soyuz 11 crew: (left to right) Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev. (Credit: Roscosmos/USSR historical archive)

Soviet program leadership decided upon long duration orbital missions as the way ahead for their spaceflight efforts while the N-1 issues were still in work. These missions started in June 1970 with Soyuz 9, when cosmonauts Andrian Nikolayev and Vitaly Sevastyanov flew aboard the last first generation Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft for 18 days, conducting biomedical experiments, earth observations, and stellar navigation exercises — validating the possibility of longer flights aboard the Salyut station to come.

On the morning of April 19, 1971 a Proton-K rocket launched from Baikonur Site 81/24 with the Salyut 1 space station on top, a station that was based on a design called Almaz — originally started by designer Vladimir Chelomei as a military response to the US Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory project. The Salyut station, a fully equipped dry workshop, successfully reached a 200 x 222 km orbit above Earth and was checked out in preparation to receive cosmonaut crews, beating the NASA Skylab program to orbit by two years.

The Soyuz 10 mission, commanded by Vladimir Shatalov, with flight engineer Alexei Yeliseyev and systems engineer Nikolai Rukavishnikov, would be the first flight of the new Soyuz 7K-OKS — with a probe and drogue docking system as well as an internal transfer tunnel. The mission marked the first time people were sent to an operational space station, 10 years after Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight.

The spacecraft launched on April 22nd and completed a rendezvous and soft docking with Salyut 1 to start what was planned to be the first stay by a crew at the new space station. However, an issue with the flight computer and attitude control system on Soyuz 10 caused the hard dock process to fail. After the crew had difficulty retracting the docking probe, they finally solved the issue, aborted the mission, left the station, and deorbited for a return to Earth on April 24th.

After working to understand and resolve the Soyuz 10 hard dock issues, the stage was set for another attempt to send crews to Salyut 1. The Soyuz 11 crew, commanded by famed cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, with flight engineer Valeri Kubasov and research engineer Pyotr Kolodin, was completing its training and preparing for a June 4 launch.

The crew, along with their backups of Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, made their way to Baikonur Cosmodrome as launch day approached.

On June 3rd, a decision was made due to a problem found during a routine preflight medical examination of the cosmonauts. Like the Apollo 13 crew the year before, a crew member was diagnosed with a last-minute condition that caused him to be replaced by his backup. However, the Soviet program’s process was different than NASA’s. The entire prime crew was replaced with the backup crew.

Doctors in Moscow found a dark spot on Kubasov’s right lung and diagnosed him with early stage tuberculosis. Kubasov’s diagnosis was not correct, and he did not become ill. According to Alexei Leonov’s memoir, Kubasov was allergic to an insecticide used on trees and quickly recovered. However, this did not matter to the Soviet space program leadership, and the backup crew was bumped up to the prime crew, being prepared for what would now become a June 6 launch for Soyuz 11.

New Soyuz 11 crew commander Georgi Dobrovolski, born in Odessa, Ukraine, was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Force, married with two children, and had been selected as a cosmonaut in 1963 along with other Soviet Air Force pilots in what was known as Group 2. After eight years in the cosmonaut corps, Dobrovolski was about to get his first flight in space.

The Soyuz 11 flight engineer, Vladislav Volkov, a native Muscovite, married with one child, was an engineer who worked on the Vostok and Voskhod projects for the Korolev design bureau before being named as a cosmonaut in 1966 as part of the Energia Engineer Cosmonaut Training Group 1. Unlike Dobrovolski, Volkov had prior experience in space, as a member of the Soyuz 7 crew that flew in October 1969.

Like Volkov, research engineer Viktor Patsayev was a civilian who worked for the Korolev design bureau. Born in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, and married with two children, Patsayev was an engineer selected in the 1968 Civilian Specialist Group 3. Soyuz 11 would mark Patsayev’s first trip in space.

(Tweet translation: In memory of the Soyuz-11 crew. Today the world remembers three heroes – cosmonauts Georgy Timofeevich Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Nikolaevich Volkov and Viktor Ivanovich Patsaev. June 30 marks the 50th anniversary of their death: the Soyuz-11 crew:“)

On the morning of June 6, 1971, Soyuz 11 lifted off from Baikonur Site 1/5 “Gagarin’s Start” and successfully reached orbit. After 24 hours, Soyuz 11 and its crew, bestowed with the call sign “Yantar” (amber), successfully docked with Salyut 1 and overcame the issues with hard docking that plagued Soyuz 10, though not without some suspense due to the docking taking place out of communication with the ground.

The crew entered Salyut 1 but found an unpleasant odor in the air and had to replace two fans. With the air needing to pass through scrubbers, the crew spent the first night in their Soyuz then powered down the spacecraft afterwards to begin their planned 30 day stay on the Salyut station.

Salyut 1 had 99 cubic meters of pressurized volume, far more than the Soyuz 11’s nine cubic meters, and was by far the most commodious crewed spacecraft that had flown up to that time. The station featured a docking module with a tunnel and a fitting for the Orion UV stellar telescope, a wider forward work compartment with seats, control panels, and video and still cameras, and a wider and longer rear work compartment with biological experiments, a conical fitting for more experiments, a treadmill, sleep stations, and a food refrigeration unit.

Salyut 1 also contained an unpressurized compartment in the aft portion of the vehicle with systems taken directly from the Soyuz design, including thrusters and a deorbit engine as well as solar panels very similar if not identical to the panels on the Soyuz 7K-OKS spacecraft. Two additional solar panels were attached to the docking module, and rendezvous antennas were also fitted onto that docking module, using a system that has been developed over the years and is still in use today.

The Soyuz 11 crew started working on biological experiments and settled into a routine of living and working in space. The crew were featured on Soviet television and were followed and adored throughout the Soviet Union. They grew beards as the days went on and exercised on the treadmill to stay fit for reentry, but found Juthat, the treadmill, vibrated the whole station. 

Viktor Patsayev celebrated his 38th birthday while in space, becoming the first person to do so.

Patsayev also became the first human being to operate an astronomical telescope in space when he used the Orion telescope to take ultraviolet stellar spectra, getting data from the stars Vega and Beta Centauri that was unobtainable from Earth’s surface.

Georgy Dobrovolsky. (Credit: USSR/Roscosmos)

The crew also photographed Earth from space, conducted military experiments, obtained medical data on themselves, and even grew flax plants in a small greenhouse called Oasis — the first of many experiments to grow crops in space. There were solar observations planned but a malfunctioning lens cover would not allow the solar telescope to be used.

However, the mission dynamics would change on June 16th. Vladislav Volkov noted a burning odor coming from the back of the station and also noted thick black smoke. He communicated this to Mission Control using a code word due to the Soviet program’s requirement for secrecy. However, the ground controllers had forgotten the code word, so Volkov had to use plain language to convey the severity of the situation.

The small fire was put out, after the crew had evacuated to Soyuz 11 and after equipment was turned off and back on. However, the fire and other issues caused the program to reevaluate the length of the Soyuz 11 mission. The decision was made to end the flight six days early, and on June 26th the crew finished all experiments. The cosmonauts focused their efforts on placing the station in “storage mode” and packing for the return to Earth, including some of the high priority experiment samples as Soyuz didn’t have room for all of the samples to come back.

On June 29, at 21:25 Moscow time, after some issues sealing the hatch on the Soyuz spacecraft that were resolved with the help of cosmonaut Alexei Yeliseyev communicating with Dobrovolski and his crew from mission control, Soyuz 11 undocked from Salyut 1 and backed away from the pioneering first space station.

Dobrovolski and his crew, clad in cloth flight suits similar to those worn by pilots, backed the spacecraft away from Salyut 1 and took photographs to document the condition of the station, in a procedure similar to what crews have done since with later Salyut stations, Skylab, Mir, and ISS. After they left the vicinity of the station, they prepared for the deorbit burn and the trip back to Earth.

Vladislav Volkov. (Credit: USSR/Roscosmos)

Dobrovolski reported to mission control in Russian “All received, landing sequence proceeding excellent, all OK, crew is excellent” after receiving instructions from mission control. At 01:35 Moscow time on June 30, 1971, the Soyuz 11’s deorbit engine fired for 187 seconds; the burn was nominal, though no communications were received from the crew after this point.

While the spacecraft was at 116 kilometers altitude, at 01:47 Moscow time, the orbital and propulsion modules separated from the descent module. Aboard the descent module, however, the crew had just been placed in mortal danger. 

A pressure equalization valve behind the control panel, meant to activate at 4 km altitude just before landing, activated prematurely due to the shock of the orbital and service module separations as the explosive bolts connecting them to the descent module all fired simultaneously rather than in sequence. As the spacecraft depressurized rapidly, the three men had just 13 seconds of useful consciousness to try to remedy the situation.

Dobrovolski and Patsayev tried to troubleshoot the situation. Patsayev was the cosmonaut closest to the valve that had opened, and investigations later suggested he may have tried to close the valve, but to no avail. 

Post-accident tests revealed it would have taken 52 seconds to close the valve manually, far longer than the crew actually had. Just 110 seconds after module separation, all three men lost their lives.

However, in mission control, while there was some concern due to the lack of communication, radar in Crimea in Ukraine picked up Soyuz 11 on a normal reentry path causing mission control to think all was well.

Viktor Patsayev. (Credit: USSR/Roscosmos)

Recovery forces on the Kazakh steppe were the first to realize what had happened upon opening Soyuz 11’s hatch. Medics tried CPR and resuscitation on the men for some minutes, but they had already passed over 30 minutes prior.

The Soviet public and the world first got word of the disaster via a TASS bulletin that began with the words “TASS reports the deaths of the crew of Soyuz 11”. An investigation into the disaster and the cause of the crew’s death was quickly established.

NASA astronaut Tom Stafford went to Moscow to represent the United States at the cosmonauts’ state funeral and while the Soyuz 11 crew lay in state and were posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union gold stars.

After Premier Leonid Brezhnev, other officials, and many ordinary citizens paid their respects, with Stafford serving as one of the pall bearers for the urns of the cremated remains, which were interred in the Kremlin Wall.

With an investigation complete, redesigning the pressure equalization valves and other aspects of the Soyuz spacecraft began, while the disaster’s effects even reached the Apollo program. 

In a seemingly unprecedented moment of rivals learning from each other during the Cold War, a decision was made to have the Apollo 15 lunar landing crew, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin, wear their A7L spacesuits during the ascent from the lunar surface.

The Soyuz 11 crew. (Credit: USSR/Roscosmos)

An uncrewed Soyuz mission in 1972 validated changes to the spacecraft, and the crew size was limited to two to accommodate a new launch and entry suit called Sokol-K. The suit, known as “Space Falcon” in Russian, was made for cosmonauts to wear during the launch and entry phases of every subsequent Soyuz flight starting with Soyuz 12 in September 1973.

While Dobrovolski, Volkov, and Patsayev gave the ultimate sacrifice 50 years ago today, and are the only humans to have died off Earth, their tragic loss came at the completion of their mission.  And while it’s easy to remember the physical reminders of their deaths in suits and redesigns and memorials, their work on Salyut 1 paved the way for so many elements of living in space that we largely take for granted today… that without them we would have had to have learned later.

Ultimately, every person who has left the planet since that fateful June morning in 1971 owes the Soyuz 11 crew a debt of gratitude… as do the billions of us who have benefited from their 24 day scientific research mission.

(Lead image: USSR postage stamp for Soyuz 11. Credit: USSR government. Retrieved from WikiCommons)

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30 days ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Why the Genetic Fallacy is Not a Fallacy

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Trivia question: which country was the first to pass a public smoking ban? Answer: Nazi Germany. Indeed, German scientists were among the first to determine a causal relationship between smoking and cancer. Adolf Hitler himself intensely disliked smoking and personally donated money to the Wissenschaftliches Institut zur Erforschung der Tabakgefahren (Scientific Institute for Tobacco Hazards […]
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34 days ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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