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Soyuz-1 flight planning

For many years, popular accounts of Komarov's fateful flight have described a pressure from the Kremlin to launch the first Soyuz against the will of doubtful cosmonauts. However, careful examination of historical records gives a much more complicated picture.

Previous Moon Race mission: L1 No. 3P (Kosmos-154)

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (left) and member of the politburo Dmitry Ustinov played key roles in the Soviet space program at a time when the Soyuz spacecraft was about to reach the launch pad.

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The three unmanned test launches of the brand-new Soyuz spacecraft that preceded Komarov's flight had exposed numerous technical flaws. Even the final unmanned prototype would certainly have killed its passengers had they been onboard. In retrospect, it seems obvious that cautious engineering thinking would dictate another "clean" unmanned launch before Soyuz could be certified to carry people. However, it is widely believed that technocrats preparing the first manned Soyuz for flight were under pressure from their political bosses to have a "space spectacular" as soon as possible. By the spring 1967, the USSR had not launched any cosmonauts for two years and the upcoming Day of Workers Solidarity on May 1 would be a perfect time for the Soviet leadership to remind the world of the "achievements of the socialist system." The long-delayed first mission of Soyuz would also coincide with the summit of the Soviet block leaders in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, giving the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev something to be proud off.

At least one Russian source names Dmitry Ustinov, a powerful member of the Soviet Politburo overseeing rocket industry, as the key official who hammered out the deadline for the dual Soyuz mission. Ustinov reportedly held numerous meetings on the issue and personally pressured Vasily Mishin, the head of the TsKBEM design bureau developing Soyuz, to fly on the eve of the Karlovy Vary summit.

According to some accounts, Ustinov also threatened cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who supposedly was skeptical about the Soyuz' readiness for flight, to "remove stars from his chest and shoulder straps," unless he agreed to pilot the vehicle. (245) However, the story is difficult to corroborate, even though it does fit the conventional wisdom.

Interestingly, Mishin's notes indicate that it was Komarov who was insisting on a quick transition from unmanned test launches to piloted missions as soon as possible during a meeting between the chief designer and the cosmonauts on January 17, on the eve of the third and final unmanned launch. (774) Mishin's deputy Boris Chertok heard a similar impatience expressed by Komarov's backup Yuri Gagarin. (466) Head of cosmonaut training Nikolai Kamanin even expressed satisfaction in his diary that technical problems with the unmanned Soyuz had yet again stressed the importance of a pilot onboard the spacecraft.

After the third unmanned test flight in February 1967, Yakov Tregub and Konstantin Bushuev, leading engineers at the TsKBEM design bureau responsible for the flight program of the 7K-OK project, held a series of meetings, considering "man-rating" Soyuz. Ultimately, the issue had to be resolved at a crucial gathering, probably on February 14, hosted by Vasily Mishin, where all the key developers of the Soyuz were reporting on the state of readiness of their respective systems. Perhaps not without underlining the pressure of the space race, the majority called for the manned launch attempt. I. S. Prudnikov apparently was the lone dissenter, still unsure about the thermal protection system, which had failed in a previous unmanned launch.

Nevertheless, with a number of corrective actions in place, Soviet space officials voted to proceed not just with a manned test flight but with an ambitious orbital rendezvous mission between two Soyuz spacecraft. The Ministry of General Machine building, overseeing the Soviet rocket industry, as well as Military Industrial Commission, VPK, later blessed the decision, which was then reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. (52)

Next chapter: Soyuz-1 flight plan

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The article and illustrations by Anatoly Zak; Last update: September 7, 2018

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: April 25, 2017

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Vladimir Komarov


Gagarin works in the Soyuz simulator.