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Soyuz-4 lifts off!

Disregarding old superstitions, officials picked Monday, Jan. 13, 1969, as the launch date for Soyuz-4 with the 13th Soviet cosmonaut onboard. However it was, not to be.

Previous chapter: Preparations for the Soyuz-4 and-5 mission


Vladimir Shatalov aboard Soyuz-4.

January 13: Soyuz-4 launch abort

On January 13, Shatalov was awaken at his hotel at Site 17 at 06:30, or six hours before the sheduled liftoff. He went through routine medical checks and had telemetry sensors attached to his body. At breakfast time, the members of the Soyuz-5 crew joined him in the canteen. They were then allowed to stop by their rooms, where Shatalov came up with the idea of using a felt pen to put his signature and the date on the door, something which became yet another ritual for departing cosmonauts for many decades to come. (820, 849)

The fueling of the rocket started at 08:30. Once again, the launch personnel was dealing with temperatures reaching minus 24 degrees and wind gusts up to 8-10 meters per second. (820)

Both crews then got on a bus for a trip to the launch pad, but that morning, Shatalov was the only one to disembark at the base of the rocket, where he reported about his readiness for the flight to the waiting Chairman of the State Commission Kerim Kerimov. (849)

At the top of the gantry, Shatolov waived to well wishers, and after removing his winter overalls, he climbed into the spacecraft around 10:30 local time (8:30 Moscow). Beregovoi served as the contact person with Shatalov and the firing bunker, while Mishin and Kamanin would join from time to time.

The preparations were going fine, for the exception of a TV broadcast from the cockpit, which somehow interfered with Shatalov's audio system, preventing him from hearing the control room. After several attempts, the controllers turned off the TV camera, deciding to rely only on radio during the ascent to orbit. (820)

Then, five minutes before launch, when the pad was completely cleared of personnel and all the top officials gathered in the bunker, an alert signaling the failure of the rocket's gyroscopic system (known in Russian as "girovertikant") lit up at the launch control console. (774)

Around that time, the members of the Soyuz-5 crew hanging around at one of the control rooms, noticed that routine countdown reports had ceased and, after around 20-minutes of silence, they got a message that the launch would not take place. (849)

The incident was similar to a situation before the launch of the Vostok-5 spacecraft, but at the time, the long summer days provided enough time for a replacement on the same day. Now, however, the personnel faced severe cold and the launch window was limited to until 15:00 Moscow Time, because otherwise, the landing would be pushed into the night-time period. Moreover, a launch pad disaster caused by a gyroscopic control error slightly more than two years earlier was still fresh in everybody’s memory, therefore officials asked Shatalov to disembark, so the problem could be fixed.

When getting off the elevator at the surface of the launch pad, Shatalov joked that he had made the most precise “landing” in space history. Indeed, he became the first Soviet cosmonaut who had had to leave his spacecraft after an aborted launch attempt.

His bus was already waiting, complete with his fellow cosmonauts. (849) However, Kamanin apparently "intercepted" Shatolov and drove him to the medical office at Site 2 in his car. (820)

The crews returned to Site 17 and, a few hours later, Kamanin returned from Site 2 and explained that due to a technical problem, the rocket had to be defueled and one of its instruments had to be replaced. However, there were good prospects for launch on January 14. Kamanin then reprimanded Shatalov for showing up on the launch pad in light shoes, when it was minus 30 degrees outside. He ordered him to be in winter clothing next time. (849)

At 18:00, Mishin opened a technical meeting for the Chief Designers and the members of the State Commission. Patrushef, Sokolov, Osipov, Kozhevnikov, Finogeev reported on the situation with the rocket.

According to Kamanin, lack of contact in one of the connectors (No. 140) in the ground cable due to high humidity and ice formation was suspected to be the most likely culprit in the gyro failure. (820)

Mishin quoted Vladimir Patrushev as saying that one of three channels (or axis) of the gyroscopic mechanism failed to rotate into the right position. Vladimir Finogeev and Mikhail Osipov reported that it had not been possible so far to clearly reproduce that particular failure during tests. Illarion Sapozhnikov said that the entire gyro instrument would have to be removed and re-tested in laboratory conditions.

In the meantime, Petr Bratslavets addressed the issue of interference between the Krechet radio and the Zarya TV systems.

Ivan Kartukov dealt with some concerns about the operation of the Emergency Escape System, SAS, under very low temperatures. He explained that the engine was certified to work at temperatures from minus 15 to plus 40 degrees. (774) Still, according to Kartukov, temperatures of the solid motors in the SAS system were not expected to fall more than two degrees (probably thanks to thermal blankets seen on photos of the rocket). This would translate into a five-percent thrust degradation, which would still be plenty for the safe escape of the crew. (820)

The specialists decided to replace all gyroscopic instruments, establish the exact reason for the failure and make another launch attempt on January 14, with the same launch window.

The crew members spent rest of the day just hanging out and watching a movie after dinner. However, late in the evening, they heard that the problem had been resolved and pre-launch operations were under way again. This quickly gave crew members the feeling of immediacy of the upcoming mission. (849)

Kamanin also called the Air Force Commander Vershinin and detailed the situation for him. (820)

January 14: Soyuz-4 lifts off on the second attempt

The State Commission reconvened at 09:00 local time (07:00 Moscow Time) on Jan. 14, 1969. By that time, it was established with absolute certainty that a ground-based unit responsible for setting the gyro-system had not been functioning properly. Vladimir Patrushev reported that the launch vehicle with the spacecraft were cleared for the second launch attempt. Mikhail Osipov noted that the overall ground equipment of the launch facility was excessively worn off after nearly a decade of operation. Finogeev added that there was a serious suspicion about the failure of the "Girovertikant" itself.

The bottom line was that Patrushev, Osipov and Finogeev all confidently stated that the problem with the gyro a day earlier had been fixed. (820)

According to the latest ballistic calculations for the new launch window, Vehicle No. 12 would have to be inserted into a 225.3 by 173-kilometer orbit with an inclination 51.72 degrees and an orbital period of 88.23 minutes.

In the morning, Kamanin visited Shatalov and told him that the gyro worked well, but the radio interference remained a mystery. They decided to try to use both the TV and radio, but to anticipate possible interruptions in Shatalov's ability to hear reports from the ground. (820)

When the preparations resumed, all the procedures mostly mimicked activities of the previous day, but this time, everything went without a hitch. Even the cockpit TV worked alongside the radio without interference.

Vehicle No. 12 lifted off from Site 31 in Tyuratam at exactly 10:30 in the morning Moscow Time. During the ascent, all the communications and other systems worked well.

Members of the follow-on crew watched the launch. (820) When they got the news that Vehicle No. 12 had successfully reached orbit, they immediately began final preparations for their own launch.

By the time Volynov, Yeliseev and Khrunov returned to the hotel at Site 17, Soviet radio and TV were already announcing that the Soyuz-4 spacecraft had been orbiting the Earth. For Shatalov's crew mates, it looked strange to suddenly see previously anonymous face of Shatalov on TV screens and hear details of his biography.

Obviously, official reports made no mention of the upcoming second launch next day or of an aborted launch attempt a day earlier.

All the publicity on TV gave Khrunov the idea of bringing fresh newspapers to Shatalov during their planned rendezvous in orbit. Volynov and Yeliseev loved the idea and they asked Nikeryasov, a member of their Star City support stuff, to try to get the morning papers before their departure for the launch pad the next day. (849) Kamanin later added a letter from Shatalov's wife and his own letter to this unique postal delivery. (820)

In the evening, the cosmonauts got out of the hotel and walked along the nascent Alley of Heroes at Site 17, where 12 trees were already growing, marking each flown cosmonaut. Four more trees now had a good chance to be added to the alley. By that time, the temperature had finally risen to just minus seven degrees, making it possible to be outside, so they spent more than an hour walking on the edge of the Syr-Darya River. (820)

Before the end of the day, Kamanin also got a report that Shatalov had successfully completed all items on his agenda during the first five orbits of the Soyuz-4 flight, including an orbit correction. (820)

The maneuver was conducted during the 5th orbit of the mission, boosting the spacecraft to a 273 by 207.3-kilometer orbit. It increased the orbital period to 88.7 minutes and placed the spacecraft into the right position for the launch of Vehicle No. 13 (Soyuz-5) now scheduled for 10:04:56.8 Moscow Time on January 15, 1969. (774)

The door was now open for the orbital rendezvous.


Next chapter: Launch of Soyuz-5


The article and illustrations by Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 22, 2024

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: January 15, 2018

All rights reserved



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Shatalov walks to his rocket on the lauch pad.



Shatalov prepares to board the Soyuz-4 spacecraft.


Soyuz-4 lifts off from Site 31 in Tyuratam on Jan. 14, 1969.