June 14, 1963: Vostok-5 lifts off
The final meeting of the State Commission took place from 8 a.m. until 8:40 a.m. The scheduled launch time was confirmed at 2 p.m.
By 9 a.m., Bykovsky and Volynov arrived to Alekseev's offices and started medical checks and suiting up operations. Korolev told Kamanin to arrive to the launch pad with Gagarin at 11:30 a.m.
At 11:00, Korolev and Tyulin met with the cosmonauts. Korolev reminded Bykovsky to report on the performance of the third stage and the fact of its separation from the spacecraft during his ride to orbit.
A bus with the cosmonauts arrived at the launch pad two hours 15 minutes before launch (11:45). After traditional "goodbyes," Bykovsky took his seat in the spacecraft. Soon thereafter, it was discovered that both UHF-transmitters of the spacecraft were not functioning -- Bykovsky could hear the ground control via six different channels, showing that UHF receivers were working, however ground controllers could only hear him via three short-wave radios. Marshall Krylov and Korolev invited Kamanin, Gagarin and Odintsov to a short discussion and all agreed to go ahead with the launch despite the problem. (574)
At T-1 hour before launch (466), (40-minutes readiness according to Kamanin (574)) Alekseev reported to Korolev that due to an error by his veteran engineer Vitaly Svershek, the cosmonaut's ejection seat was not armed correctly and could fail to eject (466). As it turned out, shortly before closing the hatch, Svershek was supposed to remove a safety cable with a circuit-breaker pin from the ejection seat and thus arm the seat's ejection system. The engineer tried to pull the pin by its cable, however it stuck somewhere it wouldn't let go. Instead of reporting the problem, Svershek made the "wild" decision -- as Kamanin put it -- to simply cut it with a knife! Moreover, leading engineer Frolov found nothing wrong with the "solution" and proceeded with closing the hatch. Fortunately, as soon as Svershek climbed down from the rocket, he described the incident to his colleagues, who immediately sounded the alarm. Alekseev withdrew his "go" to launch and demanded the problem be fixed. The launch was delayed by 30 minutes and engineers rushed upstairs to re-open the hatch, remove the hanging wire along with the safety pin and close the hatch again. The procedure apparently required that engineers partially slide the ejection seat along its guide rails out of the spacecraft.
At T-15 minutes, Gagarin, Korolev, Kirilov and Kamanin went into the underground bunker overlooking the launch pad. A T-5-minute-readiness was declared, preliminary commands were issued, when it was discovered that a display confirming readiness of the third stage was not on. The launch was postponed by several minutes, while officials called flight control specialists Pilyugin, Ryazansky, and Kuznetsov for help. They asked for 2-3 hours for the investigation and fixes. Due to limitations on landing in daylight after an eight-day flight, the launch had to be made by 17:00, or within three hours after opening of the launch window. Further delays would require to drain propellants from the rocket, remove it from the launch pad and send it back to the factory for refurbishment, delaying the mission until August at the earliest. (574)
As it turned out a gyroscope in the guidance system onboard the third stage had failed. Officials now faced a dilemma -- either race against time and replace the device on the fueled rocket or postpone the mission for weeks. Not to mention, the Damocles' sword of expiring systems on the spacecraft that was hanging over them. (466) As Kamanin remembered, many (probably including him) blinked. Marshall Krylov recommended cancelation of the launch, so did a number of members of the State Commission. However Korolev, Tyulin, Kirillov and Pilyugin decided to press ahead and fix the problem within the launch window. (574) To the delight of Korolev, Bykovsky endured the wait with his usual phlegmatic attitude, seemingly untouched by the whirlwind of rush and stress happening around him. Gagarin also helped with cheerful messages to Bykovsky via a communication link with the spacecraft. (650) In the meantime, a replacement gyro was quickly tested and installed onto the third stage. To complete a long list of troubles, a gantry with umbilical cables refused to retract just seconds before launch. Again, Korolev and his associates did not interrupt the launch sequence and as soon as the rocket started vibrating from running engines, the umbilical disconnected and the gantry fall away. (18)
Vostok-5 finally lifted off at 14:59, at the very end of its launch window, and successfully reached orbit. As the third stage separated with a bang, leaving the spacecraft weightless, Bykovsky saw snowflakes flying behind the window.
Valery Bykovsky shakes hands with launch pad personnel on his way to the launch pad.
Bykovsky shakes hands with Korolev on the launch pad shortly before boarding Vostok-5 on June 14, 1963. Credit: RGANTD
The ejection seat from the Vostok spacecraft. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The 3rd stage of the Vostok rocket during pre-launch processing. Credit: RKK Energia
Archive image of Vostok launch.