50 YEARS AGO
In August 1968, the USSR launched the final dress rehearsal of the newly developed Soyuz spacecraft to re-certify it for piloted flights after the loss of Vladimir Komarov more than a year earlier. Hidden under name Kosmos-238, the 7K-OK No. 9 spacecraft flew the fifth test mission in the wake of the Soyuz-1 accident.
Kosmos-238 was the 7K-OK No. 9 spacecraft originally configured to play a role of a passive vehicle in a dual rendezvous mission.
Mission of Kosmos-238 at a glance:
The successful completion of the second docking mission of the automated Soyuz spacecraft (No. 7 and 8) on April 20, 1968, confirmed the validity of the corrective actions made in the wake of the Soyuz-1 accident a year earlier. However, even before the encore dual flight in April, Dmitry Ustinov, an influential Kremlin official overseeing the Soviet space program, ordered to configure one more spacecraft for an unmanned test flight.
Throughout May 1968, the space industry managers and cosmonaut training officials from the Air Force discussed a multitude of flight scenarios for yet another dual Soyuz flight, which could carry one or several cosmonauts. (820)
During a technical meeting on May 7, 1968, reviewing the completed mission of Vehicles No. 7 and 8, Arkady Ostashev, who was responsible for testing, proposed to keep ships No. 9 and No. 10 configured for a (dual) piloted flight. "(However), if we do fly (another) unmanned mission, why do we need two ships? Maybe we should launch just one?" Mishin quoted Ostashev as saying. (774)
The same Ustinov finally ended the debate during a meeting on May 31. Despite assurances from Vasily Mishin, Designer General at TsKBEM, and Sergei Afanasiev, the Minister of General Machine-building that Soyuz was ready to carry a pilot again, Ustinov mandated one more automated flight. (820)
No doubt, Ustinov had discussed the politically sensitive issue of launching cosmonauts with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and with the influential Head of the Academy of Sciences Mstislav Keldysh, who was known to argue for another unmanned test flight. Clearly, in the wake of the Soyuz-1 disaster, the Soviet political leaders wanted take no chances.
Preparing Vehicle No. 9
The manufacturing of vehicles No. 9 and 10 was already underway during the first half of 1967. As of May 7 of that year, Mishin hoped for the completion of the pair's production in August of that year and penciled their joint flight in September 1967.
Vehicle No. 9 was configured as a "passive" target for docking with the "active" Vehicle No. 10.
By Nov. 11, 1967, after the first successful automated docking of Vehicles No. 6 and 5, there was already a proposal on the table to configure ships No. 9 and 10 for an unmanned mission, while retaining No. 7 and 8 for a subsequent manned flight. As late as February 1968, Mishin still hoped to send Vehicles No. 9 and 10 on a dual docking mission as early as May 1968. (774)
Following Ustinov's order for a solo test flight in May 1968, Mishin had no choice but to re-configure Vehicle No. 9 for that mission. The extra test launch would push back the overall 7K-OK program by two or three months. However, at the time, Ustinov still wanted to fly cosmonauts in the Earth's orbit aboard the 7K-OK spacecraft and send a crew around the Moon in the 7K-L1 vehicle as early as October 1968.
On June 7, 1968, General Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training who had been previously adamant about resuming manned missions as soon as possible, half-heartedly signed off for another unmanned flight, citing the overwhelming opinion from the chief designers.
According to the State Commission meeting on June 10, (and reconfirmed by the decision of the Military Industrial Commission, VPK, on July 3,) the launch of Vehicle No. 9 was set for July 27, 1968. If successful, the unmanned solo flight would be followed by the dual mission of ships No. 10 and 11 in September and carrying only one cosmonaut on one of the two ships and thus known as Mission "0+1." Next, the two manned vehicles No. 12 and 13 would launch one and three cosmonauts respectively and, therefore, be known as Mission "1+3." It was planned for November or December 1968. Ships No. 14 and 15 would be also ready by that time as backups for the 1+3 flight scenario. (820)
As of June 17, Vehicle No. 9 (now informally called Mission "0") was apparently ready for integrated tests at the Checkout and Test Station, KIS, facility in Podlipki and by July 3, the shipment of the spacecraft to the launch site in Tyuratam was expected between July 7 and 11, 1968. (774)
However during the meeting chaired by Leonid Smirnov in the Soviet of Ministers on July 22, the Mission "0" was postponed to August on the advice from the State Commission overseeing the preparations for that flight. The subsequent "0+1" and "1+3" flights kept their launch dates for the time being.
The launch of the unmanned ship was then set for August 10, but on August 8, Kamanin wrote that the mission had been further delayed until a period after August 20, 1968. The latest delay apparently resulted from an accident on August 3. During the second of three (or five) drop tests of the Descent Module conducted in Feodosiya, Crimea, the module's parachute hatch failed to jettison, preventing the opening of the parachute and leading to the crash of the test capsule. It was only the second failure of the hatch release failure out of more than 200 such operations conducted during various flights and drop tests. (820)
Mishin chaired one of the final technical meetings on the readiness of Vehicle No. 9 for flight on August 20, 1968, at 16:00 Moscow Time. His deputy Boris Chertok reported on the ongoing preparations of the spacecraft and another deputy Eduard Korzhenevsky described experimental tests to validate various upgrades in the 7K-OK series. According to Mishin's records, Vehicle No. 9 incorporated all the modifications and changes recommended after the two previous dual flights. All experimental and validation tests were also expected to be completed by the time ship No. 9 was to launch. Most of the issues found during tests at KIS in Podlipki and at the processing facility in Tyuratam were either resolved or deemed to have no effect on the success of the flight, Mishin wrote. He did note that due to the ever increasing nomenclature and complexity of the tests, the operations involved more and more young cadre of specialists without enough experience, which required more attention to quality control.
On August 26, at 10:00, as Vehicle No. 9 was probably being installed on the launch pad in Tyuratam, Mishin planned a meeting at the Central Committee with Ustinov, to report on the status of the Soyuz program, testing of its parachute system and to discuss further plans for the L1 and L3 projects. (774)
Finally the flight
The launch of Soyuz 7K-OK No. 9 took place on August 28, 1968, around 13:00 Moscow Time, and the spacecraft successfully entered a 199 by 219-kilometer initial orbit with an inclination 51.7 degrees toward the Equator. (2) According to Western data, the ship then maneuvered a 207 by 253-kilometer orbit.
In the official Soviet communique issued after the launch, the mission was announced as Kosmos-238. As usual, the low-key official statement made no mention that the spacecraft was associated with the Soyuz project. The only hint to independent observers were orbital elements that resembled the previous officially disclosed and suspected Soyuz missions. In the retrospect, Western observers speculated whether the spacecraft had been launched as a target for the second "active" vehicle, whose launch had been cancelled for some reason. (50)
There was apparently some pressure from within the Soviet rocket industry to drop the largely ineffective effort by the Soviet authorities to cover up the Soyuz flight testing and to correctly identify the unmanned vehicles for the general public. According to his own recollections, Boris Chertok raised the issue with a KGB operative overseeing the work at the TsKBEM design bureau. He replied that his organization had had no role in naming spacecraft in the official TASS communiques. He claimed that it was the political leadership that was convinced in the need for the confusion around the naming conventions in order to protect state secrets. (466) Like with the previous Soyuz test flights, the true identity of Kosmos-238 would not be officially disclosed until 1985. (2)
In any case, the flight of Kosmos-238 apparently went without a hitch and the Descent Module of Vehicle No. 9 successfully landed on September 1, 1968, at 12:06 Moscow Time (774), after a four-day mission, which matched the duration of the upcoming piloted flight. (50)
On Sept. 12, 1968, the State Commission, including Vasily Mishin, Boris Chertok, Yakov Tregub, Konstantin Bushuev and Boris Raushenbakh met at the Ministry of General Machine-building to review the results of the Mission "0." (774)
A separate commission led by Viktor Utkin, Head of the Flight Research Institute, LII, reviewed the results of five flights and ground testing completed in the wake of the Soyuz-1 accident and certified the vehicle for human missions. (466) Finally, the door was open for the Soviet cosmonauts to return to space after the tragic loss of Vladimir Komarov.
Read much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
A "passive" version of the Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft under assembly in Tyuratam.
Dmitry Ustinov (right) insisted on the fifth test launch of the Soyuz spacecraft before returning to flight with cosmonauts after the Soyuz-1 tragedy probably after consultations with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (left).
Cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov (left) shows the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev around the Cosmonaut Training Centerprobably in the 1970s.