Voskhod: Mission impossible

According to a popular legend, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev put forward the idea of sending a three-man crew into space after he had learned about US plans to introduce a two-seat Gemini spacecraft and a three-seat Apollo. When the Soviet leader reportedly pitched the plan to Korolev in a telephone conversation, the Chief Designer initially called it "absolutely impossible." However, he promised to think about it after Khrushchev had insisted. (466) This interpretation does not explain why Khrushchev demanded to put just three people onboard, but not four or five. Obviously, he had already got some input from Korolev, who did have a real understanding whether it was technically possible to squeeze a second person into one-seat Vostok, let alone to fly three people!

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Ejection seat

Although pilots were expected to land inside their capsule during Vostok follow-on missions, the ship's bulky ejection seat would still be needed for emergency escape during the launch.

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Voskhod: Mission impossible

As early as Jan. 1, 1963, Korolev penned an enthusiastic response to the management of the Moscow Physics Technology Institute, MFTI, to their proposal for preparing scientific cadre of space travelers. In his letter, Korolev wrote that systematic, long-duration space missions could commence as early as 1964. He stressed that the presence of highly qualified researchers on the crew would be very important. (84) Few days later, the head of cosmonaut training center Nikolai Kamanin discussed with Korolev a draft of a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party requesting to enroll civilian scientists and engineers into the cosmonaut group. (574)

Korolev began preparing political ground for missions with multi-member crews as early as mid-1963. On July 26, slightly more than a month after triumphant missions of Vostok-5 and Vostok-6, the expanded meeting of the Chief Designers reviewed impressive results achieved by the Vostok project. The meeting was preceded by an exhibit of the flown Vostok hardware and by a review of post-flight medical records. Cosmonauts themselves also made reports.

Korolev used the occasion to launch a massive political assault against the ultra-conservative approach toward the selection of cosmonauts candidates. "In my opinion, we are witnessing a deepening gap among medics between practice and the theory, between experience and analysis of this experience," Korolev said, "We support qualified training of pilots cosmonauts. However, we should not forget, that spacecraft crews will include not only pilots but also engineers, specialists, scientists, doctors and researchers. We believe that medics set baseless restrictions on the flight duration for spacecraft. In our opinion, the entire method of medical training, the selection process and medical studies during flight are not exactly correct." It is possible that Korolev was determined to clear path into space not only for his young engineers at OKB-1 but also for himself.

For the meeting, Korolev also outlined following upgrades that would have to be studied for future Vostok missions:

  • Soft landing and other landing methods;
  • Control over cosmonaut's parachutes;
  • Issues of creating an artificial gravity;
  • Providing manual control of the spacecraft;
  • Development of onboard computers;
  • Upgrades to ground control network. (84)

Korolev also proposed to study the possibility of using spacecraft for transport operations, for using weightlessness for medical treatment and organizing a flight experiment involving tugging behind a rocket (to create an artificial gravity). He concluded with a call to finally resolve the issue of cosmonaut selection among the (rocket) industry employees.

More than one!

According to Vostok's leading developer Konstantin Feoktistov, Korolev was the first who had asked him about placing two or even three people into Vostok. Feoktistov responded that it would be impossible to fit two ejection seats into the descent module, thus precluding either an emergency escape during an ascent or a soft landing.

The landing part of the dilemma could be resolved with an addition of small solid motors to the parachute system. They would soften the landing enough to eliminate the need for ejection before the touchdown. However the ejection seat would still be needed for launch emergencies. Various schemes to do away with the ejection during launch were apparently studied since the dawn of the Vostok project, but no perfect solution had been found.

Even if it would be possible to dramatically scale down the size of the ejection seat, it was apparently not enough "wall space" in the capsule to cut in an additional ejection hatch without compromising the structural integrity of the spacecraft. Engineers even considered a radical idea of splitting apart the entire capsule around the crew in case of emergency! In the end, the only promising route appeared to be eliminating ejection seats and rescuing the entire capsule. (18) Still, Korolev kept returning to the issue. (196)

Finally, by the end of 1963, the US plans to build the two-seat Gemini spacecraft and the lunar Apollo spacecraft capable of carrying three cosmonauts prompted the urgent Soviet search for an adequate response. The Soyuz spacecraft was deemed too far behind in development to beat NASA. The Dec. 3, 1963, decree called for the beginning of the flight tests of the three-seat 7K spacecraft before the end of 1964 and launching two other unmanned components of the Soyuz complex during 1965 and 1966. However nobody considered these dates realistic. Korolev's deputy Boris Chertok quoted his engineers as saying, "you should understand that even a porcupine would not be able to fly on Soyuz in 1964."

As a result, a fill-gap solution based on the existing Vostok was required, even though it would inevitably push Soyuz even further into the future. By February 1964, it was decided to redesign the four yet-to-be completed Vostok spacecraft into three-seat vehicles. (509)

Go ahead to Voskhod

The active development of the three-seat Voskhod spacecraft started in January 1964. (466) According to Feoktistov, in February 1964, Korolev came back to him with a "fat incentive" -- if Feoktistov would figure out a solution to the problem, Korolev would lobby to add an engineer into the crew. It was a thinly veiled promise to launch Feoktistov on the first Voskhod as a reward for his cooperation. Not surprisingly, the pace of the work on the multi-seat spacecraft skyrocketed. Preliminary specifications for the Voskhod spacecraft were issued in April 1964. (196)

To tackle the issue, Feoktistov could not propose anything better than abandoning the bulky ejection seat and thus accepting a considerable unmitigated risk at the initial phase of the flight. The crew would have no rescue scenario during the first 40 or 50 seconds during the launch and during the final countdown before the liftoff. (84) By 1964, the flight record for the R-7 based rockets, which would lift Voskhod into space, had improved, even though it had still been far from spotless.

On March 25, 1964, a group of industry officials led by Leonid Smirnov wrote to the Central Committee that the High Commission of the Soviet for Military and Industrial Issues evaluated and endorsed the plan calling for the launch of the three-member crew on up to a day-long mission in a 180 by 240-kilometer orbit in the 3rd quarter of 1964. Moreover, five additional Vostok spacecraft would have to be manufactured in 1964 and 1965 with a goal of "testing the capability of a human being for direct involvement in assembly in orbit." This was a clear reference to a spacewalk. Simultaneously, same missions would test military usefulness of manned spacecraft, the letter said.

The Soviet government formally endorsed the Voskhod project with an official decree on April 13, 1964. According to the document, four refurbished Vostok spacecraft were allocated for achieving a three-member flight in the 2nd or 3rd quarter of 1964 and five new vehicles would be built in 1964 and 1965 to achieve the first spacewalk. (509)


Next chapter: Designing Voskhod

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 25, 2020

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Konstantin Feoktistov was the key engineer behind Vostok and Voskhod.


The Voskhod, a.k.a. 3KV, spacecraft. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


The head of the Academy of Sciences Mstislav Keldysh examines Voskhod spacecraft. Credit: RKK Energia


Voskhod under assembly. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia



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