Vostok flies dress rehearsal
On March 9, 1961, the USSR launched an automated satellite, carrying dog Chernushka, on a one-orbit test flight. The mission was the fourth in the publicly disclosed series of "spacecraft satellites," however, unknown to the general public at the time, it was also the first heavily modified version of the Vostok spacecraft configured for carrying a pilot and precisely simulating the upcoming orbital flight of the first human in space.
Dogs flown in the Vostok test program (possible names, left to right): Strelka, Chernushka, Zvezdochka and Belka. This photo of Chernushka (second from the left) apparently served as the basis for the post stamp commemorating the flight of the Fourth Spacecraft-Satellite.
Vostok-3KA No. 1 mission at a glance:
Development of the Vostok-3A variant
During 1960, while the flight tests of the original Vostok-1 (1K) prototypes were ongoing, Sergei Korolev requested his engineers at OKB-1 to provide a formal set of basic requirements for a series of upgrades under the code name Vostok-3, also known as 3K. It was designed to be capable of carrying pilots onboard.
During the preparation of the third Vostok-1 prototype for launch in August 1960, Feoktistov handed to Korolev the requested documents for the 3K variant. Korolev scanned through the papers at his Tyuratam office and then asked Feoktistov to meet him at the main processing hall, where the flight-worthy Vostoks were undergoing assembly. Feoktistov suspected that besides being close to actual hardware, Korolev wanted to stage some theatrics for numerous engineers and test officers working on the program. The Chief Designer apparently hoped to convey to his associates that the era of human space flight was near and that he, Korolev, was firmly in charge of every detail of the design process and would not pushed around.
The long list of proposed modifications for the piloted Vostok included a separate reentry control system for the Descent Module and a special emergency escape capsule that could be employed by the pilot up to an altitude of 90 kilometers above the Earth's surface in case of a rocket failure during ascent to orbit. Along with the designs, the basic requirements outlined a flight test program which would be needed to validate all the new hardware. In his memoirs, Feoktistov recalled that he was able to address all Korolev's difficult questions but, by his own admission, he shared Korolev's skepticism about the design.
To many of Feoktistov's own subordinates, the Vostok-3 project amounted to the development of a new spacecraft and they vehemently opposed these massive upgrades from the Vostok-1 variant. They argued that the flight test program to validate all the added features would significantly delay the first piloted mission. (463)
Immediately upon his return from Tyuratam (after the August 19, 1960, launch), Feoktistov gathered his associates to discuss further actions. He drafted between 12 and 15 items for a revision of the Vostok-3 project. The core of the plan was to use the most necessary and minimal upgrades relying heavily on the experience from the already completed missions.
After two or three hours of discussions, the engineers agreed on key points: the ejection capsule should be greatly simplified and the dedicated flight control system should be completely eliminated from the Descent Module.
The switch to an open ejection seat meant that the direct bailout of the pilot from the capsule would be limited to around four or eight kilometers where the pressure suit could provide the necessary protection. At higher altitudes, the Descent Module with the pilot inside would have to be separated first, following the emergency cutoff of the rocket's engines. Obviously, even a split-second delay with the bailout from a failing rocket could mean the difference between the life or death for its pilot. Ejection on the pad would be provided with a special opening in the access gantry surrounding the rocket before liftoff and by a special netting over the flame duct of the launch complex in the area where the pilot was expected to parachute down after bailout.
It was already past nine in the evening when the team finally came to an agreement and, despite the late hour, Feoktistov immediately called Korolev. "Come right away," was the reply. Feoktistov jumped into the car and was at Korolev's office five minutes later. He obviously had no good drawings or supporting documentation, besides several hand-written notes. By his own admission, Feoktistov struggled a bit to explain the plan, even though Korolev was willing to accept ill-prepared presentations despite his tendency to accept visual information more easily. This time, the situation was further complicated by the fact that Korolev's deputy for solid-propellant missiles Igor Sadovsky was in the office, clearly after an exhaustive discussion of the OKB-1's troubled RT-1 program.
At one point in Feoktistov's makeshift presentation, Korolev exploded into an argument over one of the details and Feoktistov went on a risky counterattack. As he recalled years later, he left the office after 11 p.m. without any agreement and in a depressed mood, because Korolev seemed unconvinced.
Next morning, Feoktistov relayed his sad experience to Korolev's old associate Mikhail Tikhonravov. "Don't get upset, you did all right," Tikhonravov said, "he often reacts to new ideas this way, but it means little. You will see, he will come around."
Sure enough, a few days later, Korolev summoned everybody involved to a meeting on the piloted vehicle to the new office of his deputy Konstantin Bushuev at the bureau's secondary campus in Podlipki across the Moscow-Yaroslav Railway. (The site was had previously been vacated by a nuclear industry contractor.)
In his memoirs, Feoktistov estimated that the fateful gathering took place on August 28, 1960. This time, Feoktistov arrived armed to the teeth with numbers and pictures, preparing for a major fight. To his surprise, Korolev and other participants quickly supported the plan and immediately turned to the issues of improving hardware reliability during transition to human-rated vehicles.
The agreed modification of the spacecraft would be implemented under the designation Vostok-3A or 3KA. (463) The spacecraft was expected to have these new fully functioning features:
Rounding up the meeting, Korolev said that due to shortened flight test program and the fact that the latest proposals would rely on existing hardware with minimal upgrades, the first human orbital flight could take place as early as the beginning of 1961. Korolev promised to report his conclusions to the government in near future. (196)
Indeed, at least two reports for the government prepared by Korolev, and signed by other key officials, went to the Kremlin in early September 1960, confidently predicting a piloted orbital mission by the end of 1960. (509) On September 14, 1960, the influential Head of the Department of Defense Industry Ivan Serbin recommended to the Central Committee of the Communist Party to give priority status to the launch of the Vostok-3A spacecraft with a pilot onboard in December 1960. The special status of the program was approved on October 11 by a Decree No. 1110-462 of the Soviet of Ministers and the Central Committee. The program was authorized to run in parallel with the work on the robotic version of the same spacecraft for military reconnaissance under name Vostok-2 and on its more advanced version code-named Vostok-4.
Korolev gave Feoktistov and his team one month to detail the Vostok-3A variant and its design was completed in September 1960.
While Vostok-3A was coming off the drawing board in the Fall of 1960, OKB-1 continued flight testing the original Vostok-1 variants. Their final launches on December 1 and December 22, 1960, pushed back the program by a few months, but the upgraded vehicle was ready for pre-launch processing and testing in January 1961. (196)
A total of four Vostok-3A ships were manufactured in the first batch. The plan was to launch two of these vehicles with dogs onboard and, in case of the complete success of both automated missions, the third ship could carry a pilot. The two automated missions were expected to fly the exact flight profile of the subsequent one-orbit piloted flight.
To increase the reliability of the vehicle ahead of the launch with a pilot onboard, Korolev banned all changes in the technical and operational documentation and in the calculations made by specialists during the pre-launch processing of the vehicles. However, the formal design for the Vostok-3KA variant would not be formally approved until July 1961, or after the first launch of a human in space. (52)
At the launch site
In early 1961, preparations of the first Vostok-3A variant in Tyuratam were taking place in the shadow of the Nedelin's disaster in the previous October and overlapped with the hectic three-launch campaign of the first Soviet Venera probes. In addition, a poorly understood third-stage engine problem that had botched the December 1960 test launch of the Vostok-1 prototype, had to be resolved, while a myriad of issues in the ground tests, cosmonaut training and support infrastructure development for the upcoming piloted missions had to be handled.
Probably in an effort to reduce the ever-increasing and potentially dangerous workload of the military testers in Tyuratam, a new (fifth) group was formed in January 1961 within the Detached Engineering and Testing Unit based at Site 2 of the range. The team, led by a veteran of the range Vladimir Belyaev, would be specialized on the increasingly complex spacecraft processing. (947)
On January 5, 1961, top officials met back in Moscow to discuss the pressing issues. The focus was on the Venera campaign, but Korolev's deputy Bushuev also updated the group on the Vostok-3A project: the first launch was scheduled for February 5 and the second one between 15th and 20th of February. However, by February 12, the domino effect from the Venera campaign had already pushed the first Vostok-3A to the 22nd or 23rd of February and the second launch could come eight or 10 days later.
The first spacecraft was in Tyuratam by February 15 and by that time, its launch was penciled for February 25 or 25, but by February 20, the mission slipped to the 27th or 28th of the same month.
On February 22, 1961, the State Commission held a formal meeting on the Vostok-3A project, where the officials had to sign off on a first launch in early March with a number of open issues concerning life-support and the ejection seat to be resolved before the second (final) launch preceding the piloted mission. The top engineers for both problematic systems (Voronin and Alekseev) promised to provide updates on the situation during the next meeting set for February 27. Both engineers also participated in the technical meeting on February 24 and, despite many questions, assured everybody that the first Vostok-3A could launch on the 2nd or 3rd of March, while their teams would continue ground tests and sorting out problems. At the same time, the second Vostok-3A launch was planned between 20th and 25th of March.
On February 27, a technical meeting took place at the aviation factory in Lytkarino which was responsible for the most critical and still not validated components of the landing and safety hardware aboard Vostok-3A. The organization's chief designer Semen Alekseev assured everybody that all the tests would be completed by March 20. Aleksandr Kobzarev, Deputy Minister of Aviation Industry, proposed shipping the second Vostok-3A to the launch site only after completion of the tests between March 21 and 25. However, aware of the time needed to prepare the spacecraft, Alekseev argued for shipping the vehicle between the 1st and the 5th of March 1961.
On the evening of the same day, the State Commission met as planned and approved the timeline of the critical ejection seat and life support tests, which would all take place after the first pilotless launch of Vostok-3A. (142)
By the end of February 1961, the State Commission approved a group of specialists to process the Descent Module after landing. As before, Arvid Pallo from OKB-1 led the group, which also included O.I. Kozyupa (deputy), design engineers A.A. Lobnev, A.V. Komarov and cameraman from Tsentr-Nauchfilm movie studio M.G. Beschetnov.
Spacecraft design and flight program
On March 1, 1961, Korolev sent a report to the Central Committee detailing the scenario and objectives of the upcoming mission with a request for the approval of the launch and a pre-written draft of the post-launch public statement. (509) The next day, Nikolai Kamanin approved the official instructions for the Vostok pilots which would be their primary guiding document during the flight. On the same day, the launch of the first Vostok-3A was set for March 9, 1961.
On March 6, Semen Kosberg, who led the development of the RO-7 engine for the third stage of the launch vehicle, delivered a report on the December 22 failure to the members of the State Commission, thus clearing the rocket for flight.
According to the known flight program of the first Vostok-3A mission, the Descent Module would be carrying the transmitting and receiving radio equipment for telephone voice communications. Without a pilot onboard, these systems were set up to transmit musical tape recordings from the spacecraft. The only major avionics component missing from the spacecraft package was the ZU-O data-recording device developed at OKB MEI in Moscow. (946)
The capsule also carried all other onboard systems of the piloted Vostok. In addition, a stationary container with a dog named Chernushka (blackly) was fixed to the side of the capsule's interior. (51) The spacecraft also carried the AFA-39 photo-camera intended for the robotic reconnaissance version of the spacecraft. (231)
In the meantime, the ejection seat, which carried a GKZh animal container in previous test missions of Vostok-1 variant, was fully configured this time to carry a pilot. However, during the first two launches of the Vostok-3A variant, the chair was to be occupied by an anthropomorphic dummy of a pilot or a mannequin jokingly christened Gavrila or Ivan Ivanovich. The latter (widely accepted) name apparently came from the assembly workers who also made a tradition of greeting the dummy at the start of each workday in the assembly hall. (946)
Ivan Ivanovich was equipped with various sensors and a recording device installed in its torso. The recorder was developed at the Flight Research Institute, LII, which had experience in building such equipment for aircraft testing. (463)
In the chest and belly cavities of the dummy, there were containers with mice, guinea pigs, frogs, flies, microbes, plant seeds and human blood samples to continue studies of radiation and weightlessness on biological objects. (52) Most importantly, the dummy was dressed into an actual pressure safety suit developed for the Vostok pilots.
As in previous Vostok-1 launches, unpiloted Vostok-3A vehicles were equipped with the self-destruct mechanism, APO, which could be activated during an uncontrolled reentry.
The spacecraft was ready to perform all the functions providing life support and thermal conditioning of the cabin required for the presence of a pilot onboard and carried the necessary safety equipment and emergency supplies. It was also configured to provide two-way communications in UHF range (139.0 - 143.7 megahertz) for radio contact in the direct view of Soviet ground stations and in the short-wave range (9/10 - 20/22 megahertz) for the behind-the-horizon communications. The latter channel was expected to be used for broadcasts of music recordings which were designed to be received by radio stations in the USSR and abroad.
Telemetry and scientific information from the spacecraft were planned to be received via specialized telemetry and TV channels.
The flight and descent timeline of the mission was to be programmed into the vehicle's sequencer on the launch pad. Matching the upcoming piloted mission, the flight scenario included a single orbit with a minimum altitude of 180 kilometers and an inclination 64 degrees 56 minutes toward the Equator. At the end of the first orbit, the spacecraft was programmed to perform a tail-first orientation, relying on sun sensors, and fire its braking engine to initiate a ballistic reentry. The final descent trajectory was projected to extend across the USSR in the northeastern direction over the cities of Tuapse, Volgograd and Perm. The nominal landing was aimed in the plains east of the Volga River, between the cities of Kuibyshev (present day Samara), Stalingrad (Volgograd) and Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg).
On March 6, the State Commission approved a list of ground stations stretching from west to east across the Soviet territory allowing them to monitor the entire process of the orbital insertion and the initial orbital flight:
The ground, air and sea-based search and rescue assets would be deployed at the primary and most likely backup landing sites of the mission. (509)
The Vostok-3KA spacecraft lifts off
The first Vostok-3A (3KA) No. 1 spacecraft lifted off on March 9, 1961, a split second before 09:29 Moscow Time. After a nine-minute nominal ascent, the spacecraft successfully entered a 183.5 by 248.8-kilometer orbit with an inclination 64 degrees 56 minutes toward the Equator. (51)
In accordance with an already established official procedure, a public statement based on a template pre-approved by the Soviet government back on March 2, was cleared to go live, but because this particular flight lasted less than 2 hours, it would not hit the airwaves until after the ship's landing.
The spacecraft was announced as Chetverty Korabl-Sputnik (the Fourth Spacecraft Satellite). Along with it, dog Chernushka was introduced to the world. That fact was actually a hint that the latest spacecraft was different, because the previous three announced missions carried two dogs each.
Vostok-3KA returns to Earth
As the spacecraft was orbiting the Earth over the Western Hemisphere, its flight control system fired the ship's TDU S5.4 3KA braking engine. According to the summary of Vostok missions, issued on March 27, 1961, the maneuver started at 10:45:40.6 Moscow Time, or around 1 hour and 16 minutes after liftoff. The engine was then cut off at 10:46:22.8 Moscow Time, after a 42-second burn. Less than 10 seconds later, at 10:58 Moscow Time, as the spacecraft began its planned reentry, the Descent Module and the Instrument Module were commanded to split from each other.
Another 12 minutes later, at 10:58 Moscow Time, the modules hit the dense atmosphere, followed by the loss of signal in the heat of plasma, and the deployment of the three-tier parachute system aboard the Descent Module.
The landing was expected near the city of Kuibyshev, but the capsule overflew the projected landing site by 412 kilometers. (231) Fortunately, the signals of the Raduga system aboard the Descent Module started coming at 11:03 Moscow Time, or just five minutes after the reentry. They helped pinpoint the location of the capsule and the dummy with the help of the Air Force's Krug short-wave receivers.
At 11:40 Moscow Time, Colonel Yuri Mozhorin, who led the mission control team at the NII-4 military institute in Bolshevo near Moscow, called Kamanin who had arrived at Kuibyshev the previous night with a group of other officials and informed him of the landing location.
At the time of landing, aircraft and helicopters involved in the search operation were deployed at the Kryazh airfield near Kuibyshev. However, the runway closest to the actual landing site was at Zainsk, a regional center in Tatar Republic. It was between 15 and 20 kilometers away from the determined landing location. While Kamanin and other were making their way to the Kryazh airport, the chief of militia in Zainsk called the Air Force and reported the sighting of two parachute containers landing 15 kilometers northwest of the town. It turned out to be around 20 kilometers away from the point determined with the Krug receivers.
The landing area was narrowed down to the village of Stary Tokmak, in the Zainsk District, at a point 55 degrees 22 minutes North latitude, 52 degrees East longitude, around 250 meters above sea level.
After landing at Zainsk, Kamanin's team boarded several trucks and headed for Novy Tokmak, 12 kilometers north of Zainsk. However, a heavy snowfall a day earlier made some sections of the road almost impassable. In Novy Tokmak, they switched to horses and headed to Stary Tokmak, but the horses also struggled in the snow and constantly stalled. Kamanin and his teammates then walked to a location between 1.5 or two kilometers (around a mile), reaching the Ivan Ivanovich dummy by 4 p.m. They were beaten there by four search specialists that parachuted there from an Ilyushin-14 plane.
Kamanin described Ivan Ivanovich as "laying on the back of the ejection seat and looking into the sky." His red (actually orange) suit and black boots were well visible on the white snow. Not far from the mannequin were a red parachute (actually two), a red rubber boat and the emergency kit container, NAZ. The antenna of the NAZ container was in vertical position and seemingly operational. Semen Alekseev and his associate inspected all the hardware and looked very satisfied with its performance. Kamanin ordered the loading of the equipment on the sleds and headed to the capsule, another two kilometers away.
He found a parachutist and several local men right next to the capsule and he asked them to move to an at least 100-meter distance due to the danger of the self-destruct mechanism onboard. Only a representative of OKB-1 was allowed to disarm the device, but Kamanin learned that a helicopter with that specialist had mistakenly been sent by General Kutasin from Kuibyshev to Syzran and had to return back to Kuibyshev for refueling before traveling to Zainsk. By that time, the snow was falling again, and all the aircraft were grounded until morning.
In the meantime, it was getting dark at the landing site and, with temperature plunging, the "rescuers" were worrying that the dog in the capsule would succumb to the cold. Kamanin and Kalmykov decided to inspect the craft. They found its exterior scorched by reentry and next to the capsule were eight detached ring segments of the insulation. Two hatches were open (which was normal, because one released the capsule's own parachute system and the other was used for the ejection of the seat.) Two meters from the capsule was a rubber ball with the P-37 transmitter, which appeared to be functioning. Looking inside, Kamanin did not notice any damage. Most importantly, he saw that the switch of the APO mechanism was in the "otboi" (stand down) position. After some discussion with Vladimir Yazdovsky (an Air Force medicine expert), Kamanin cleared Kalmykov to extract Chernushka. To their joy, they found the dog in excellent shape.
By the time the group made it back to Stary Tokmak, a large crowd of local adults and children had gathered by the village's council building. Obviously, everybody wanted to see Chernushka. While Kamanin talked to Moscow over the phone, he saw Vladimir Yazdovsky showing off the dog and delivering an impromptu lecture on space exploration to the residents. The same evening, Kamanin and his group returned to Zainsk. As they were having dinner in the local canteen, an official TASS announcement was heard on the radio about the launch of the Fourth Spacecraft Satellite. (142)
Ironically, a group of engineers from OKB-1 made it to the spacecraft on sleds only in the morning of March 10. (463)
Recovery specialists reported that the capsule had made a soft landing under a main parachute with a total area of 574 square meters. The rescue team found the site covered with around 200 millimeters of soft snow. They confirmed that several layers of the thermal protection had detached from the craft, attributing this to the impact into the frozen soil.
The mannequin was also found after a soft landing around 2 kilometers away with both, primary and secondary parachutes opened during the descent. (52)
The considerable distance between the landed objects was attributed to strong winds at an altitude of seven or eight kilometers where the dummy was ejected from the capsule.
A day later, a heavy Mi-4 helicopter landed at the site, bringing Colonel S.N. Sibiryakov, who led the recovery effort and Major General Tsedrik, the commander of the Air Force at the Privolzhsky Military District. Later, another Mi-4 helicopter, piloted by Sr. Lieutenant Mitin and equipped to carry external cargo arrived at the site. During the day on March 11, the helicopter delivered the Descent Module to the airfield in Zainsk. There, it was loaded into an An-12 cargo plane, piloted by Captain Bykov which departed Zainsk the same evening.
According to the official history of OKB-1, all the onboard equipment of the first Vostok-3A spacecraft worked flawlessly and all the objectives of the test mission were met. (52) The spacecraft also successfully tested photo equipment intended for the robotic reconnaissance version of the Vostok. The photos produced in orbit reportedly showed aircraft on runways. (231)
However, according to several sources, the post-flight analysis revealed that after the separation of the Descent and the Instrument Module prior to reentry, the umbilical connecting the two modules had not been cut as planned. As a result, the recoverable and expendable parts of the spacecraft plunged into the dense atmosphere still tugged to each other by a thick tether but otherwise disconnected. It took the searing heat of the reentry to finally break the Descent Module from its dangerous companion. That problem was blamed for the overshoot of the projected landing site, although the mechanism of it is not exactly clear. (231)
In his memoirs, Korolev's deputy Boris Chertok said that the primary command for the separation of the modules failed to generate after the braking engine cutoff and that the separation had been triggered by a backup command from heat sensors detecting the heat of reentry, even though the timeline of separation cited in the March 27 mission summary indicates a nominal reentry timeline.
Even more strange, Chertok claimed that everybody had been too busy with other things to address these issues during the preparation for the second and final dress rehearsal of the piloted mission initially planned within eight days. (466) According to another interpretation of events, the umbilical separation issue was seen as too minor to be addressed, which is even harder to believe.
One way or another, Korolev had sent an official request for the authorization to launch the second Vostok-3A spacecraft in the second half of March 1961. (509)
A blueprint of the Vostok-3A (3KA) spacecraft.
The upper composite of the Vostok-3A (3KA) spacecraft with the third stage of the 8K72 (Vostok) launch vehicle and the payload fairing.
The Vostok-3A (3KA) spacecraft.
Dog Chernushka. Credit: Roskosmos
The mannequin built for the Vostok-3KA spacecraft.
A Soviet stamp dedicated to the fourth spacecraft satellite featuring dog Chernushka. Anatoly Zak's collection.