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Upside down: a strange flight of Soyuz-3 spacecraft

On Oct. 26, 1968, a year and a half after the fatal Soyuz-1 accident, the new Soviet spacecraft finally returned to flight with a pilot onboard. Right after entering orbit aboard Soyuz-3, cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoi began a manual approach to the unpiloted Soyuz-2, but made crucial errors in the darkness of night trying to dock in upside down orientation and severely overusing propellant.

Previous chapter: Soyuz-2 lifts off

Soyuz-3 lifts off to intercept Soyuz-2

30 m

Georgy Beregevoi brought Soyuz-3 as close as 30 meters from Soyuz-2, but the target vehicle refused to cooperate due to severe pilot errors and the planned docking had never taken place.

On October 26, at 8:30 in the morning, the State Commission met and everything was declared ready for flight. (774) Based on the latest contact with the already flying Vehicle No. 11 during its 13th orbit performed by two ground stations in the Soviet Far East around 05:00 Moscow Time, mission control gave the green light to the second launch.

Beregovoi arrived at the pad by bus and after a traditional farewell at the base of the pad and from the top of the gantry boarded the ship.

At 11:25, the main control center in Yevpatoria, Crimea, received a report that Vehicle No. 10 was in 5-minute readiness for liftoff. Officials in the main control room then heard the final commands of the ignition sequence and the confirmation of a liftoff.

The first report about the nominal ascent came only after a long 30-second pause, but then, Beregovoi's voice cut into the broadcast, reporting on the routine vibrations and shaking of the rocket, increasing g-loads, separation of the four strap-on boosters and payload fairing and other ascent milestones.

As usual, in the course of the ascent, the announcer read the exact liftoff time for Vehicle No. 10: 11:34:18.4 Moscow Time. It was only 0.3 seconds off the ideal moment and well within the required one-second window necessary to begin a fast-track rendezvous with Vehicle No. 11.

After glancing at Yakov Tregub and Boris Chertok and seeing no disagreement, General Agadzhanov, who led mission control team, picked the microphone and instructed NIP-3 ground station in Sary Shagan not to radio the cancellation of the short-range rendezvous profile. "We are working along the primary program," Agadzhanov said.

Immediately, experienced telemetry experts pre-deployed at various ground stations began direct reading of telemetry tapes bypassing the regular deciphering process. NIP-3 reported that Beregovoi pulse as 104 and both the Sary Shagan and Ussuriisk stations quickly confirmed that the third-stage engine cutoff, the separation of the spacecraft into orbit and the deployment of antennas and solar panels had gone by the book. There was also a confirmation that a signal from the target spacecraft was also tracked by the intercepting ship and the next message reported that the two spacecraft were only one kilometer from each other. Officials in Crimea were seemingly impressed.

As Kamanin was leaving the firing bunker at the launch site in Tyuratam, he remembered hearing an announcer reporting a distance of eight kilometers between the two ships and a rendezvous rate of 15 meters per second. When Kamanin arrived at the command center (at Site 2), officials there were busy congratulating each other. (820)

The immediate post-launch analysis showed that after entering orbit, Vehicle No. 10 was only 10 or 11 kilometers from its target, or well within the 20-kilometer range that the Igla (needle) rendezvous system needed for the active vehicle to quickly home in on its target and initiate the automated intercept sequence. (466)

As the flight program prescribed, at a distance of 200 meters, Beregovoi switched to manual control to demonstrate the capability of a trained pilots to perform that kind of maneuvering, long sought by the Air Force.

As of 12:15 Moscow Time, tracking data showed that the two spacecraft were just 80 meters from each other and moving with a relative speed of just 0.6 meters per second. (774)

However, the final rendezvous and docking operations were falling out of range of Soviet ground stations and, by the time the ships would enter the communications range, they have expected a "hard mate."

In the last few seconds of communications with the ground station in Ussuriisk, Beregovoi reported: "Distance - 40 (meters)." (466, 774)

As the spacecraft disappeared over the Pacific, the Ussuriisk station reported some troubling signs showing in the final bits of telemetry: the movable platform of the antenna on Vehicle No. 10, which was supposed to track the target ship, was making an unexplained pitch rotation as the interceptor spacecraft was closing in. Moreover, the propellant expenditure from the DPO attitude control system on Vehicle No. 10 was exceeding all limits in the last seconds of communications.

Health is good, mood is lousy

For under an hour, the specialists could only wait and hope that Beregovoi would be able to complete the berthing and the spacecraft would re-appear within the communications range as a single stack. But just in case, Chertok advised Bashkin and Kozhevnikova to prepare an orbit correction program for a potential second rendezvous attempt.

However, when the spacecraft entered the communications range with NIP-16 around 13:00 Moscow Time, ground control was avalanched with the most disappointing telemetry data and a devastating report from Beregovoi himself: "As of 12:25, as soon as (I) came out of the shadow, (I) saw that my pitch axis was with a 180-degree error. (I) tried to correct the pitch with the DO-1 (attitude control) system but understood that to continue the rendezvous (would be) dangerous. The pressure in the DPO system was 110 atmospheres, but, according to the instructions, I was required to shut off the system, if it fell down to 135. (466)

Kamanin, who was at the command post in Tyuratam (further east from Crimea) and might have heard only the later part of the communications session, quoted Beregovoi only as saying that "the docking did not take place due to misalignment of the course of the spacecraft." (820)

In any case, it was immediately clear that any future attempt to dock would not be possible due to severe over-spending of propellant.

Cosmonaut Pavel Belyaev, responsible for communications via the Zarya system, probably trying to change the subject, asked whether Beregovoi was feeling OK. "The health is good, but the mood is lousy," Beregovoi responded.

Upon analyzing the newly downlinked data, the controllers found Beregovoi's ship critically low on attitude control propellant. They now had to worry about keeping the ship in the right orientation for the braking maneuver to return to Earth, rather than any further docking attempts.

Before the end of the day on October 26, Mishin recorded that propellant expenditure had reached around 52 kilograms during the manual mode. (774)

Around the same time, Kamanin wrote that a total of 80 kilograms of DPO propellant had been spent (on automated and manual control), while the remaining 8 or 10 kilograms would be needed for attitude control during the braking maneuver. (820)

In Crimea, an emergency technical meeting led by Agadzhanov and Chertok urgently reviewed the situation in orbit. Various specialists reported that their respective systems on both spacecraft had been performing by the book. However, the playback of telemetry showed that the pilot was very actively manipulating hand controllers and that the propellant was severely overused as a result of the cosmonaut's unexplainable behavior.

According to Chertok the lion's share of DPO propellant was spent in just two minutes of manual control (466):

Automated control
Manual control
Recorded duration
20 minutes
2 minutes
Propellant expenditure
30 kilograms
40 kilograms

"He was fighting the Igla (rendezvous system)," joked Mnatsakanyan, who was its prime developer. Bashkin and Feoktistov were enraged by Beregovoi's seemingly irrational and irresponsible actions.

Chertok remembered defending Beregovoi. "We are good too. (We) made the program which forces a man, just after experiencing heavy loads (of launch) and for the first time in his life in weightlessness, without a preliminary exercise, 10 minutes after launch, in darkness search with a periscope for four lights and manipulate control handles in some strange ways, so he can re-shape an imaginary trapezoid! This is our fault that (we) agreed to a manual rendezvous without any adaptation period, not to mention at night and our ballistic experts refused to pick a launch time so that the rendezvous would be in daylight."

"I can't take this blame," said Zoya Degtyarenko (who was in charge of ballistics), "Your comrades made us drive the docking into the night, (because) they were afraid of ion holes (a known interference with ion orientation sensors), while the management demands the landing (even in emergency) exclusively in daylight. We should have given a priority to the rendezvous and docking right after launch in daylight and we could have done it. By the way, Feoktistov argued that it would be even easier to rendezvous and dock at night by lights."

According to Chertok, mutual recriminations were threatening to further escalate, but fortunately, the team had a pressing need to re-shuffle the flight program and prepare the landing sequence.

The flight control team then received a message from Tyuratam that an Il-18 aircraft had been dispatched to Crimea with the top officials who had attended the launch, including Minister Afanasiev, Keldysh, Kerimov, Mishin, Kamanin, Karas and many chief designers. The total list of high-ranking visitors included 75 people, which prompted somebody to joke that with so many bosses, not only Beregovoi but also the flight control group would do everything upside down. (466)

Next chapter: Soyuz-2 lands

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The article and illustrations by Anatoly Zak; Last update: October 30, 2018

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: October 29, 2018

All rights reserved



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Beregovoi arrives at launch pad to board spacecraft on Oct. 26, 1968, at 11:20 local time (09:20 Moscow). Credit: Roskosmos


Beregovoi climbs the ladder toward the elevator of the access gantry in preparation for boarding the Soyuz-3 spacecraft on Oct. 26, 1968. Credit: Roskosmos


Beregovoi bids farewell to well-wishers from the top of the access gantry moments before board Soyuz-3. Credit: Roskosmos


Beregovoi climbs through the hatch of the payload fairing during board of the Soyuz-3 spacecraft. Credit: Roskosmos


Launch vehicle with Soyuz-3 spacecraft is being fueled for launch on the morning of Oct. 26, 1968. Credit: Roskosmos


Soyuz-3 in the final minutes before liftoff. Credit: Roskosmos


A possible photo of Soyuz 7K-OK No. 10 (Soyuz-3) lifting off on Oct. 26, 1968, at 11:34 Moscow Time. Credit: RKK Energia


Soyuz-3 ascends to orbit. Credit: Roskosmos