Soyuz-9 embarks on a record-breaking mission
In June 1970, two Soviet cosmonauts spent 18 days aboard the Soyuz-9 spacecraft, setting a flight-duration record. Theoretically, the mission prepared the Soviet cosmonauts for a possible lunar expedition. However, the price of the achievement was high, providing major lessons for the future.
Soyuz-9 mission at a glance:
Origin of the Soyuz-9 mission
Although the Race to the Moon was over by all intents and purposes in 1969 with the landing of Apollo-11 astronauts on the Moon, the Space Race between the USSR and the United States had continued unabated into the new decade of the 1970s. With its super-rocket project in tatters after two failed launches in 1969, Moscow had to rely on its latest 7K-OK (Soyuz) spacecraft for more space "firsts" to be achieved by Soviet cosmonauts.
Thanks to its flexible architecture and relatively sizable habitation module, the Soyuz could be customized for a variety of tasks. One important breakthrough with real implications for the future of space flight would be extending mission durations from just days into weeks. At the time, Soviet engineers were already working on the Almaz and Salyut space stations, therefore the experience with long-duration missions could give confidence to developers that crews could live and work efficiently aboard orbital outposts in long shifts.
On the political front, the capabilities of the Soyuz allowed the USSR to break the flight-duration record set by the crew of NASA's Gemini-7 mission back in December 1965 and it could be achieved in much more comfortable conditions for the cosmonauts then either aboard Gemini or the one-compartment Voskhod-3 spacecraft, which was originally assigned to achieve that feat in 1966. Therefore, the long-duration flights, became a "low-hanging fruit," thanks to Soyuz.
At the time of the Soyuz-8 landing on October 18, 1969, four more 7K-OK vehicles (No. 17-20) were under assembly at the factory of the TsKBEM design bureau. Originally, they were assigned for testing of the new Kontakt docking system developed specifically for the L3 lunar-landing project. The first pair of ships was scheduled to rendezvous and dock using the Kontakt in August or September 1970, depending on the readiness of the new hardware. (142) However, the de-facto end of the Moon Race in July 1969 changed political priorities.
On December 6, 1969, Sergei Afanasiev, Head of General Machine-building Ministry, MOM, which oversaw the rocket industry visited the TsKBEM design bureau to discuss plans for the future.
A long-duration solo flight of the Soyuz spacecraft was put at the top of the agenda as the prime candidate to mark the upcoming 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the USSR, on April 22, 1970, and the opening of the 24th Communist Party Congress around the same time. During the meeting, chief architect of Soyuz Konstantin Feoktistov proposed to fly the spacecraft for 16 days. (78)
Alternative proposals apparently circulating within the industry at the time included putting the first crew aboard the troubled L1 spacecraft for a risky mission around the Moon or launching a Soyuz piloted by women cosmonauts. (142) However, the Soviet leaders opted for a long-duration flight.
In his notes dated December 30, 1969, the Head of the Cosmonaut Training Center, General Kamanin, wrote that several days earlier, he had received an order to prepare for a Soyuz mission which could last from 17 to 20 days around the time of Lenin's anniversary, just four months away!
Specifically for the long-duration flight, a docking mechanism was omitted from Vehicle 7K-OK No. 17, while the ship's life-support system was beefed up to provide for a pair of cosmonauts to stay in orbit for as long as 20 days.
Andriyan Nikolaev, the veteran of the Vostok-3 mission, and the rookie cosmonaut from TsKBEM design bureau Vitaly Sevastyanov were assigned to the flight, but a total of six cosmonauts, comprising three crews, had spent eight months training for the flight, including Anatoly Filipchenko, Georgy Grechko, Vasily Lazarev and Valery Yazdovsky. On May 16, 1970, at the meeting of the Soviet Air Force leadership, Kamanin declared all trainees passing their exams with perfect grades and being in excellent physical shape.
Two days later, the Military Industrial Commission, VPK, also reviewed the readiness of the Soyuz-9 for flight and set its launch date for May 31, 1970. The cosmonauts and their entourage departed Chkalovsky airfield near their training center for Tyuratam on the morning of May 19. (142)
Crew of the Soyuz-9 spacecraft, likely imaged during training for the mission: Andriyan Nikolaev (left) and Vitaly Sevastyanov.
On the evening after their arrival to Tyuratam, Kamanin and other officials visited Site 31, where Soyuz-9 was being prepared for launch. There, they learned that problems had been found in electrical systems in the past few days, requiring the replacement of several components and putting the May 31 launch date in question. (142)
Because the launch of Soyuz-9 was to be the first Soviet mission lifting off in the middle of the night to meet the required landing window, Kamanin and other officials had to decide on the crew schedule in the final days before the flight. Under a traditional schedule (going to bed at 11 p.m. and getting up at 7 a.m.), the crew would be looking forward to liftoff and to the eight-hour work day in orbit after going for 17 hours without sleep. In previous flights, the cosmonauts lifted off between four and six hours after getting out of bed. Obviously, some officials proposed to shift sleep periods for the cosmonauts in the final 10 to 12 days on the ground to within 10 or 12 hours from the time of launch. It would require the crew to go to bed around noon and get up around seven or eight in the evening. Others, including Kamanin himself, as well as cosmonauts Shatalov, Filipchenko and Grechko, argued for a normal regime on the ground until the launch. The Air Force medics proposed to gradually push the going-to-bed time to 2 or 3 in the morning and the get-up time to 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. To Kamanin's surprise, Nikolaev and Sevastyanov strongly agreed with the medics and, starting on May 20, their activities began shifting to later hours.
As in some previous launch campaigns, an outbreak of dysenteria at the launch site prompted Kamanin to impose strict quarantine around the crew.
On May 20, the launch pad at Site 31, assigned for the launch of Soyuz-9, hosted a liftoff of a Zenit reconnaissance satellite. The spacecraft reached orbit as planned, but due to strong winds reaching above 20 meters per second, the exhaust apparently burned some cables and left some damage on truss structures. Fortunately, after inspection of the launch pad, specialists assured the management that everything would be repaired before the rollout of the Soyuz-9.
Before the end of May 22, it became finally clear that the launch could not take place on May 31, due to electrical problems found during the integrated testing of the spacecraft. Instead of required 38 volts in the circuitry, multiple measurements showed peaks of more than 60 volts.
Vasily Mishin and other top managers of the Soyuz program departed for the launch site near Tyuratam on the morning of May 26, 1970, and at 17:00 Moscow Time on the same day, the State Commission overseeing the launch cleared the spacecraft for fueling and other irreversible operations. However, at the time, specialists still had to work an issue with the tank emptying mechanism, SOB, on the second stage of the 11A511 rocket which would carry 7K-OK No. 17 into orbit. Mishin indicated that it was the 7th incident with this particular system, though the six other instances affected launches of Zenit satellites. He directed his deputy Anatoly Shabarov and the launch vehicle manager Soldatenkov to prepare an analysis of the situation by May 28.
On May 27, the group of cosmonauts preparing for the mission made a fishing trip to an unnamed lake not far from Site 3, which they noticed from a plane during their approach to Tyuratam. The lake turned out to be abundant with fish and surrounded by greenery, both rare for the semi-desert surrounding Tyuratam. So, in the evening, cosmonauts treated Mishin with "ukha" (fish soup) and together they watched the French comedy "Le Corniaud." (The title is translated as "Sucker" in English and "Razinya" in Russian). This is a bit unorthodox repertoire for a Soviet military base, for example, the protagonist in the movie boasts that he saw the most famous landmarks of Europe, including the Eiffel's Tower, Big Ben and... the Berlin Wall, which was a taboo subject for Soviet censors.
On May 28, members of the official Soviet press and Minister Afanasiev arrived at the launch site. The next day, officials discussed the launch date, apparently insisting on the liftoff on June 1, despite the original proposal to launch on June 2.
On May 30, at 11:00 local time, cosmonauts sat inside their flight-ready spacecraft at the assembly building of Site 31 for the final familiarization before the ship was attached to the rocket. The technical management then met at 18:00 local time, with Afanasiev, A.N. Ponomarev, General Kerim Kerimov, V.G. Krasavtsev in attendance. The officials made the decision to roll out the vehicle to the launch pad at dawn of June 1, 1970, and launch it at 24:00 local time (22:00 Moscow Time) on the same day.
That timeline was then officially approved by the State Commission on May 31 at 11:00. At 20:00, on the same day, the State Commission met again for the traditional confirmation of the crew.
Hectic launch activities on June 1, 1970, had to go according to the following timeline (Tyuratam time):
Mishin's notes indicate that all pre-launch operations went as planned with the exception of some unspecified issue with the access platforms of the launch complex. (774)
Soyuz-9 lifts off
The Soyuz-9 spacecraft lifted off from Pad 31 in Tyuratam on June 1, 1970, at 22:00 Moscow Time, with commander Andriyan Nikolaev, and flight engineer Vitaly Sevastyanov onboard. Nine minutes after the liftoff, the spacecraft successfully entered a 219.0 by 206.2-kilometer orbit with an inclination 51.7 degrees toward the Equator. Apparently, during the 5th or 6th orbit of the mission, the crew conducted the first orbit correction of the mission, which delivered 15 meters per second in acceleration, pushing the Soyuz-9 to a 214.7 by 269.8-kilometer orbit.
As the crew was settling in space, the Soviet press disclosed to the public that the mission would be conducted solo for the purposes of science and technology, however the official reports provided no clue on the planned duration of the flight. The Soviet press also announced that the crew received good wishes from Neil Armstrong, who was visiting the USSR at the time. Armstrong had become the first to walk on the Moon less than a year earlier, though that fact was not mentioned.
On June 2, at 11:00 Tyuratam time (09:00 Moscow), Mishin and other managers departed the launch site for the NIP-16 ground station in Yevpatoria, Crimea, which traditionally served as the nerve center of all Soviet piloted and deep-space launches. Mishin arrived there at 14:00 Moscow Time and an hour later, he chaired a meeting of the technical management team which reviewed the results of the initial six orbits around the Earth, as the spacecraft went out of range of Soviet ground stations for several orbits.
The top officials than met again at 21:00 to plan for another orbit correction during the 17th orbit of the mission, when Soyuz-9 was to re-appear over the Soviet territory. Mission control had the following communications windows with the spacecraft during the night from June 2 to June 3, 1970:
The spacecraft ignited its engine at 22:41 Moscow Time and fired it for 21 seconds, delivering 14 meters per second in velocity change. The maneuver placed the spacecraft into a 266 by 247-kilometer orbit, with an inclination 51.7 degrees toward the Equator. The perigee was now high enough to keep the spacecraft in a stable orbit for most of the planned duration.
Life and science in orbit
During the day of June 3, Soviet reports announced that Nikolaev and Sevastyanov had become the first cosmonauts to shave in space, thus giving the first hint that the crew was in space for the long haul.
The TASS news agency reported that the crew members had comfortable rest in sleeping bags located inside the habitation module -- essentially business class accommodations, compared to those of the Gemini astronauts who had to sleep in their flight chairs. The crew also had a heater for food, while the menu included various soups, steaks, ham and fruit juices among other things. The crew also followed current events on Earth, in particular, the cosmonauts were reported watching matches of the world's football cup.
Not surprisingly, the flight program was packed with medical tests. The cosmonauts also had many opportunities to photograph the Earth's surface and the atmosphere. The crew also followed a rudimentary one-hour exercise routine twice a day, which was designed to prevent the negative effects of weightlessness during a long flight… or so Soviet medics thought.
On June 8, fellow cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who happened to be Nikolaev's wife, started the long tradition of paying visits to mission control for teleconferences between the crew and their family members. Despite the late hours in Moscow, Tereshkova brought their daughter Aleyona, who turned six on that day and pleasantly surprised her dad when she picked up the mike.
On June 10 (Wednesday), the cosmonauts were given their first "day off" in space, which according to Kamanin, saw minimum communications with mission control and no experiments. However, Kamanin wrote in his diary that Nikolaev and Sevastyanov had been keenly interested in his offer for an Earth-to-space chess game. The crew battled Kamanin and Gorbatko. Due to the limited communications range of ground stations, the game had to be interrupted many times and stretched over three orbits (approximately 4.5 hours) and finally ended in a draw. TV images of the historic match were transmitted around the world. (142)
Nikolai Kamanin (right) and Viktor Gorbatko (center) ponder their next move, as Valery Bykovsky (left) prepares to announce it to the Soyuz-9 crew during the world's first space-to-ground chess match.
On June 14, Nikolaev told mission control that he had seen several small meteors entering and burning up in the Earth's atmosphere. On the same day, the crew also participated in the "elections" of the members of the Soviet Supreme Council, not surprisingly, giving their votes to the Communist Party.
According to Mishin, on their 13th day in space, the cosmonaut showed signs of fatigue, even though they soon got back into shape.
Soyuz-9 breaks flight-duration record
On the morning of June 15, 1970, Mishin and his colleagues returned to Crimea to oversee the conclusion of the record-breaking orbital mission. At 13:00, Soyuz-9 passed over the NIP-10 ground station and at 15:45, the mission was on a path allowing a long communications session with ground control, complete with a TV transmission. The cosmonauts re-confirmed their good physical condition and normal operation of all systems aboard the spacecraft.
On June 16, at 10:00, the technical management met again to review the results of the two weeks in orbit. The planned scientific program of the mission was declared successfully completed. For example, remote sensing images taken during the flight helped geologists to improve geological maps, Mishin wrote.
Mishin credited the strict flight schedule for achieving good health and high work efficiency during the flight. He cited the following propellant supplies still available for the mission:
At the time, the Soyuz was reported to be in a 214 by 231-kilometer orbit with a rotation period of 88 minutes. According to a ballistic forecast, the ship would descent to a 176 by 189-kilometer orbit by June 20, 1970. That was apparently considered dangerously low, therefore, for the maximum possible duration of the mission, an orbit-raising maneuver would have to be conducted on June 18, during the 271st orbit of the flight. However, Mishin cited E. Vorobiev as arguing that one extra day in orbit would not be meaningful for the medical science, therefore, the crew would be better of attempting landing while still with at least a day-worth of reserves aboard the spacecraft.
At 18:48, Mishin watched the crew on live TV during a communications session and found them in good shape. There was another communications window starting at 20:20, but the TV transmission from orbit failed at the time, due to damage to the ground cable between stations in Simpheropol and Yevpatoria.
After some debate between medical team, Kamanin and Mishin, the decision was made to follow the original flight program of the 18-day flight, on the condition that the crew could maintain the reserves for two additional days in space with landing opportunities.
Before the end of June 16, the Soviet press announced that the Soyuz-9 had logged 352 hours in space, unprecedented in the history of space flight. The Soyuz-9 formally broke the flight-duration record on June 17, 1970, however the mission continued for two more days.
Preparing for landing
On June 17, at 10:00, Mishin met with his colleagues again for the technical review of the mission. There was a proposal to land the spacecraft on the same day, but the decision was made to continue the flight as planned until the landing on June 19, during the 287th orbit, allowing two days' worth of reserves. The key consumable, limiting the duration of the mission at that point was food, while other supplies could allow an even longer flight.
The orbital decay forecast predicted following parameters for the mission:
During the path of Soyuz-9 over the NIP-16 station starting at 16:45 Moscow Time, the cosmonaut showed live TV from the Descent Module of their spacecraft.
Another long TV session started at 18:20 Moscow Time, and, once again, the cosmonauts proved they were in excellent shape completing their work on June 17.
On June 18, at 10:00, Mishin and the engineering team met again to review the work during June 17 and to plan activities for the final full day in orbit, as well as preparations for landing.
To leave orbit, the propulsion system was expected to slow down the spacecraft by 95 meters per second. In case of a main engine failure, the small DPO thrusters could fire for 15 minutes 26 seconds to initiate the reentry.
As late as June 20, Soyuz-9 could still perform its deorbiting without additional orbit corrections, but the backup reentry opportunity would require re-uploading the new landing sequence from ground stations to the ship's flight control system. However, for an emergency landing attempt on June 21, the crew would have to perform an orbit correction first.
During the final 287th orbit of the mission, Soyuz-9 was expected to be in a 186.6 by 287-kilometer orbit.
The final pre-landing meeting of the State Commission was planned for 17:00 Moscow Time on June 18. Around that time, there was an apparent decision to shift the landing target point by around 50 kilometers, which would place the Descent Module around 100 kilometers from the city of Karaganda in Kazakhstan.
At the time, Mishin recorded the following predicted orbital parameters for the mission:
On the morning of June 19, 1970, mission control had its first communications session of the workday with the spacecraft from 08:39:37 Moscow Time to 08:51:09 Moscow Time during the 283rd orbit of the mission. Around that time, the cosmonauts were woken up to prepare for landing. They locked themselves inside the Descent Module and dropped the pressure inside the Habitation Compartment, while checking the pressure inside their capsule. (The crew had no protective suits at the time.) During a pass over NIP-15 ground station, the crew transmitted live TV.
During the 284th orbit, crew was in touch with mission control from 10:10:32 Moscow Time to 10:22:56 Moscow Time. The cosmonauts were still conducting pressure checks and preparing for landing.
During the 287th orbit, Soyuz-9 initiated the deorbiting process as planned.The Descent Module then successfully landed around 75 kilometers west of Karaganda on June 19, 1970, at 14:59 Moscow Time.
At the time of the touchdown, two helicopters and a plane were already at the landing area and helicopter pilots were able to watch the descent of the capsule for the final eight minutes of its flight.
At 15:10, Mishin recorded a report from Nikolaev that the crew was in normal condition; the Descent Module was in vertical position and the parachute lines were jettisoned from the capsule as planned.
At 15:30, Mishin made phone calls to Brezhnev and other top political leaders, confirming the successful conclusion of the Soyuz-9 flight.
However, around the same time, he also recorded reports that the cosmonauts had "problems transitioning from weightlessness to gravity conditions and asked to leave them in Karaganda for the night from June 19 to June 20. (According to previous plans, the cosmonauts were expected to return to the Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow after just a two- or three-hour break in Karaganda.)
As a result of the forced change of plans, at 20:00 Mishin and the others flew from Crimea to the Vnukovo-3 airport in Moscow, instead of the Chkalovsky airfield where the cosmonauts were originally expected to return on the evening of June 19. The officials landed at Vnukovo-3 at 22:30 Moscow Time.
According to the official post-landing reports, the cosmonauts felt "well" after the 18-day flight. Only years later, did the cosmonauts themselves admit that upon landing they were in a very bad physical shape. According to Sevastyanov, he could barely climb to the exit hatch and then helplessly waited for the rescuers, who fortunately were on hand immediately. The cosmonauts could not walk and had to be carried to an evacuation helicopter. While onboard, Nikolaev briefly lost consciousness. Upon arrival to Karaganda, the crew developed high fever, while urgent medical checks revealed that their hearts had severely contracted.
Return to Moscow
On June 20, around 11:45, after an almost two-hour delay, Mishin and other top managers of the program met the cosmonauts at the Chkalovsky airfield near Moscow and accompanied them on a short ride to the near-by Cosmonaut Training Center, TsPK.
On June 22, Mishin mentioned in his notes that the condition of the cosmonauts was among the subjects of his phone conversation with Leonid Smirnov that morning. (774)
Both cosmonauts could not get out of bed for almost a week, but fortunately, their condition gradually improved, and they fully recovered. Mishin mentioned in his records a meeting with the cosmonauts at TsPK on June 27, which was apparently the first time the crew of Soyuz-9 made a public appearance.
Not surprisingly, Soviet space medics embarked on a major re-evaluation of their procedures to combat the adverse effects of weightlessness in space. The work had a direct impact on the design and procedures of the Salyut space station project which was in active development at the time. (774) As history would show, Soviet space medicine learned the harsh lesson of Soyuz-9 exceptionally well.
Vitaly Sevastyanov (left) and Andriyan Nikolaev during training in the mockup of the Soyuz spacecraft. Credit: Roskosmos
Nikolaev during training. Credit: Roskosmos
Sevastyanov and Nikolaev during artificial weightlessness training aboard an aircraft flying a parabolic arc. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-9 during pre-launch processing in Tyuratam. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-9 is being integrated with its launch vehicle adapter during pre-launch processing in Tyuratam. Credit: Roskosmos
A launch vehicle with Soyuz-9 spacecraft is being rolled out on the launch pad in Tyuratam. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-9 on the launch pad in Tyuratam. Credit: Roskosmos
Nikolaev and Sevastyanov report about their readiness for flight to the Chairman of the State Commission before boarding Soyuz-9 on the launch pad. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-9 moments before liftoff. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-9 lifts off during the night from June 1 to June 2, 1970. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Nikolaev on a TV screen in mission control during a communications session with Soyuz-9. Credit: Roskosmos
Alyona, daughter of Nikolaev and Tereshkova, talks to her father during visit to ground control center with her mother on June 8, 1970. Credit: Roskosmos
Nikolaev demonstrates weightlessness to his daughter with a small toy during a TV conference with ground control on June 8, 1970. Credit: Roskosmos
Sevastyanov plays chess with ground control during a TV communications session. Credit: Roskosmos