Vostok completes dress rehearsal
On March 25, 1961, the USSR launched the final test mission before the historic journey of the first human into space. Like its predecessor 16 days earlier, the Vostok-3A No. 2, made a single loop around the planet with a dog onboard, simulating the flight scenario of the planned piloted mission.
Zvezdochka emerges from the Vostok's Descent Module after landing.
Vostok-3A No. 2 mission at a glance:
Flight program of the second Vostok-3A
The launch of Vostok-3A No. 2 was intended to re-confirm for the second and final time that the new spacecraft, its rocket and the myriad of support elements of the project were fully ready to safely complete all phases of a one-orbit piloted mission.
There were practically no changes in the flight program or the configuration of the vehicle, whose Descent Module was just four kilograms heavier than its predecessor. (463)
The main passenger inside the Descent Module during the final dress rehearsal flight was once again a lone dog. (950) The original name of the six-kilogram light-colored female mongrel was Udacha (Luck), but, according to popular accounts, the future cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin reportedly proposed to re-name the dog to Zvezdochka (Little Star) and his co-trainees supported the idea. (It is well documented that Soviet space officials routinely renamed "space dogs" for propaganda purposes before the announcement of their flights, which makes the story about Gagarin's involvement doubtful.)
One lesson reportedly learned from the previous launch was the recognition that TV images transmitted from orbit could be picked up anywhere around the world with the necessary equipment. Under the conditions of the near-total secrecy surrounding the Soviet space program, views of space-suited astronauts captured before the actual piloted missions could fuel inevitable rumors on the other side of the Iron Curtain about secret Soviet space flights. To prevent that, a sign with the word "maket" (a mockup) was placed behind the helmet visor of the life-like spacesuited dummy which once again occupied the ejection seat aboard Vostok-3A and was to be viewed during the flight by TV cameras inside the ship's cockpit. (946) Possibly, a similar sign was placed on the back of the spacesuit, perhaps to warn local population at the landing site.
As before, the mannequin, made of metal and covered with leather, had several niches in its limbs and body that were used to place containers with biological specimens, including frogs, mice, guinea pigs, flies, fungi, microbes, viruses, dry seeds of various plants, scallion sprouts, various ferments and acid solutions. The dummy was also wired with sensors to record acceleration, angular momentum and radiation levels. It also had a built-in microphone and a recorder designed to pick up and play back sounds inside the cabin. The recordings were to be used for testing of the voice communications between the pilot and ground control. Again, in anticipation of possible intercepts, all audio transmissions were limited to the recordings of folk songs by the Pyatnitsky Chorus.
As usual, communications with the Vostok were to be conducted in the UHF (139.0-143.7 megahertz) range, when in direct view of ground stations, and in the short-wave (9-10 and 20-22 megahertz) range for behind-horizon contacts. The spacecraft would also transmit telemetry and TV signals the same way.
The mission would also repeat the previous attempt to photograph the Earth's surface using the AFA-39 camera.
As in the previous, and subsequent (piloted), mission, the entire flight sequence of the one-orbit mission would be loaded on the pad, timing the reentry and landing at the start of the second orbit. In case of a major deviation from the pre-programmed routine, the Descent Module would be blown up with the APO self-destruct mechanism.
Preparations for flight
The request for official approval of the flight program for the second Vostok-3A mission, accompanied by a draft of a public statement on the successful launch, was submitted to the Central Committee of the Communist Party on March 15, 1961, and received the formal green light a day later. (509)
Meanwhile in Tyuratam, the launch facility used for Vostok missions had just received a new mobile gantry with an elevator leading to the very top of the rocket. With it, instead of climbing dangerous vertical ladders, the future spacecraft pilot would need to take just a few steps to the base of the rail platform, from where an elevator cabin would slide up along the metal gantry right to the hatch of the spacecraft. (947)
All these last-minute additions were making space travel seem increasingly real to those involved. In parallel, ground tests of various Vostok systems and the training of pilots were entering the final stage. On March 13, General Nikolai Kamanin, who led cosmonaut training, had already discussed with his Air Force superiors when exactly in the course of the pioneering flight the announcement would be made to the world.
Surprisingly, the all-but-ready cosmonauts had never seen a real space launch. Finally, on March 16, 1961, at 06:00 Moscow Time, three Il-14 aircraft with all the Vostok pilots in active training departed Moscow. Yuri Gagarin went on the trip only a day after he had brought his wife from the hospital after the birth of their second daughter.
After takeoff, one aircraft flew directly to Tyuratam, while two other two first headed to the city of Kuibyshev. Onboard one plane in the pair were Gagarin and his co-trainees Grigory Nelyubov and Pavel Popovich, while three other potential candidates for the flight -- Gherman Titov, Valery Bykovsky and Andryan Nikolaev -- were on the second plane. On approach to Kuibyshev, the two aircraft overflew the planned landing area for the Vostok missions, which was also the same region where the trainees had previously made their parachute jumps.
After a night in Kuibyshev, the group joined the others in Tyuratam on March 17. Understanding the historic significance of the day, a five-member strong detachment of cameramen was filming the arrival of the group at the top-secret launch site. The de-facto head of the Vostok project Sergei Korolev and the Head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Mstislav Keldysh personally met the cosmonauts on the tarmac.
On March 18, the Vostok pilots met the top engineers, including Korolev and Valentin Glushko. Korolev asked each of them a couple of technical questions and was apparently satisfied that all trainees had expressed their readiness to fly "even today." They were told that a total of six Vostoks had been launched, four of them had made it to orbit, and of those two had made a perfect landing, one had landed successfully after a third stage failure and only one had been a complete failure as a result of a rocket failure. Korolev briefed the pilots on the various corrective measures taken after the failures.
After the conversation, the whole group went to the assembly building at Site 2, where they were shown the actual Vostoks and their rockets being prepared for flights. That visit resulted in rare footage of the Vostoks under assembly during that crucial historic period.
In the following two hours, the pilots discussed the "cosmonaut manual" with the engineers, making a number of suggestions and revisions to the document. The main request was the addition of manual blockage on the release of the backup parachute after the main one had deployed successfully. Kamanin promised to evaluate the feature, but during the first flight at least, both parachutes were expected to be deployed automatically.
On March 19, Kamanin noted in his diary that the launch of the second Vostok-3A spacecraft had to be postponed to a period between March 24 and 25, due to failures in the radio equipment requiring repairs.
On the evening of March 21, Gagarin, Titov and Nelyubov conducted spacesuit fit checks and communications tests that included them climbing inside the Vostok spacecraft still inside the vehicle assembly building. On March 23, officials had received the news from Moscow that a member of the cosmonaut team Sr. Lieutenant Valentin Bondarenko had died in an accidental fire at the end of a 15-day isolation experiment inside the oxygen-filled barometric chamber at the aviation and space medicine institute of the Soviet Air Force.
The State Commission overseeing the tests met on March 24, at 11:00 Moscow Time. Despite the imminent piloted launch after one last test flight, the top engineers responsible for life-support and escape systems reported on a number of serious unsolved problems. Semen Alekseev, from Aviation Plant 918, responsible for safety equipment and spacesuits, announced that four mid-air ejection seat tests of pilots from the Il-28 bomber, as well as sea trials of the safety kit, NAZ, were yet to be conducted and required between seven and 10 days. Another ejection test from the Descent Module and the simulation of bailout on the launch pad had been completed successfully. In the meantime, a representative from the OKB-124 design bureau, responsible for the life-support systems, reported a serious problem with the air-regeneration system inside Vostok. A 10-day test of the system resulted in a pool of salty fluid on the floor of the Descent Module due to the low effectiveness of the moisture absorbent. Moreover, a gas analyzer used in the cabin was exaggerating the readings for concentration of oxygen and CO2 in the cabin.
The bureau was working on the replacement of the absorbent with another more potent chemical, but it required between 14 and 15 days to complete. (Although, the first Vostok mission was scheduled to last only one orbit, the spacecraft had to be configured for a 10-day flight in case of failure of the braking engine.)
Despite all these potential hurdles, the launch of the second Vostok-3A was set for March 25, 1961, at 08:54 Moscow Time. With the launch window less than 24 hours away, the rocket with the spacecraft was rolled out to the launch pad at 13:00 Moscow Time on March 24, as several of future pilots looked on.
At 18:00 Moscow Time, Gagarin and Titov were suited up and made a trip to the launch pad aboard a specially equipped bus. At the pad, they rode the elevator to the top of the rocket, but did not get into the capsule.
March 25: Final preparations
At 06:30 Moscow Time (8:30 local), Mstislav Keldysh chaired a short meeting of the State Commission that confirmed good weather and a trouble-free countdown. Around an hour and a half before the planned liftoff, five cosmonauts and other officials went to the IP-1 ground station a few kilometers from the pad to watch the launch.
In the meantime, Kamanin, Yazdovsky and Popovich ventured to the firing bunker at the edge of the launch pad to test communications with the ship's cockpit. For the first time, they saw Korolev and the members of the firing team, conduct the final operations.
Around an hour before the planned liftoff, Korolev got a report that one of the sensors on the third stage had malfunctioned. He called Semen Kosberg, responsible for third stage propulsion system, and after a short discussion, they decided to deactivate the device. To do that, two engineers had to climb to the rocket, open its hatch, disconnect four wires and then close the hatch.
Kamanin returned to the bunker around 10 minutes before liftoff. Two minutes before launch, a recorder was activated aboard the spacecraft; it began transmitting the final countdown and would switch to folk songs after liftoff to test communications. The transmissions could reach Tyuratam for around three minutes after launch. (142)
Second Vostok-3A flies
The 8K72 launch vehicle, carrying the Voistok-3A No. 2 spacecraft, lifted off on March 25, 1961, at 08:54:00.431 Moscow Time. At 09:05:31 Moscow Time, the spacecraft separated from the third stage of the launch vehicle, entering a 178.1 by 247-kilometer orbit with an inclination 64 degrees and 54 minutes toward the Equator. (231)
After making a single loop around the Earth, the braking engine, TDU, was fired aboard the spacecraft at 10:10:49 Moscow Time, followed by the separation of the Descent and Service Modules at 10:11:36 Moscow Time.
Just half an hour later, at 10:40 Moscow Time, ground stations registered the first signals from the Descent Module, indicating that the capsule had survived the reentry and landing. (781)
Back in Tyuratam, Kamanin emerged from the firing bunker and instructed all the cosmonauts to fly back to Moscow. Before they departed, Korolev's deputy Konstantin Bushuev called, informing Kamanin that signals from Vostok's P-37 and P-126 transmitters had been received from the landing zone. They confirmed that the parachutes had deployed and that the Descent Module had landed.
As Kamanin and the others made it back to Moscow late on March 25, the dispatcher at the Air Force command post reported that the spacecraft had made a perfect landing near Izhevsk, (142) even though, the primary landing site and recovery forces were near Kuibyshev. (463)
Interestingly, the official cable sent to the Central Committee and to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on March 25, said that the spacecraft had landed in the assigned area and that its Descent Module had been located by search teams 60 kilometers northeast of the city of Sarapul. The report had confirmed that the animals were alive, though it added that measures had still being taken for the evacuation of the Descent Module and the mannequin from the landing area.
The report also said that the preparation for the next launch of the "spacecraft-satellite" would begin at the launch range on March 26, aiming for launch opportunities from April 6 to April 15. The document did not mention the plan to put a pilot aboard that vehicle. (509)
In the meantime, the Soviet press made little secret of the goal of the completed flight, even though there was no direct disclosure in the post-landing announcement that a piloted mission would come next. Instead, one article, headlined "Before the Decisive Phase," said that the "launch of the fifth spacecraft-satellite that carried dog Zvezdochka in its cabin and its successful landing in the designated area was one in a series of tests before the flight of a human in space." The article also reported the mass of the spacecraft as 4,695 kilograms.
After the Vostok landed at around 11:00, a team of seven recovery engineers from Plant 918, who had beeen waiting in Kuibyshev for two nights, were driven to the nearby Kryazh airfield which served as the main operational base for Vostok recovery efforts. (949) From there they were flown to city of Izhevsk where the airfield closest to the landing area was situated. The Head of the local Communist Party committee took on himself to coordinate the search effort in the increasingly worsening weather.
Only by around 2 p.m., was the team informed by radio that they have to head to the village of Bolshaya Sosnovka, some 80 kilometers away and across from the Votkinsk Hydro-electric Dam. The geographical coordinates of the site were determined to be 56 degrees 47 minutes North latitude and 54 degrees 27 minutes East longitude. The site was 200 meters above sea level.
However, a heavy snowstorm was raging in the region, making the helicopter trip to the location impossible. Instead, a detachment of 30 military parachutists were dropped into the steppe, along with supplies which were supposed to last for a couple of nights.
The soldiers found the capsule and its components strewn over a wide area covered by more than a meter of snow. They were ordered to guard the equipment until the arrival of the specialists; however their own supplies were lost in the awful weather.
Due to the continuing snowfall, all attempts to send a ski-equipped four-seater aircraft with three specialists from Plant 918 had to be postponed until the morning of March 26, when the weather finally cleared. When the first attempt at takeoff was finally made, the aircraft hit a snow drift with its left skid and broke a propeller. The team had to get into another plane and only then was it able to complete the dangerous flight and soft landing on a snow-covered field near Malaya Sosnovka. With the help of local peasants, the engineers made it to the capsule on a horse-drawn sleigh.
The spacecraft had melted the snow around its landing site and was still attached to its giant parachute.
Although soldiers were guarding the capsule, only now could the specialists remove Zvezdochka. Fortunately, the temperature had never fallen below +1C degrees during the night, so the dog was found to be in good shape.
After the initial inspection, the group dropped one of its members near the capsule and then proceeded to the dummy pilot. It was found in a clearing surrounded by giant evergreen trees on the side of a brook not far from the village. (948)
By the time engineers arrived, there was a some sort of quarrel apparently brewing between the soldiers guarding the site and the locals, who probably confused the mannequin for a foreign spy, not unlike the infamous Francis Gary Powers shot down over the USSR the previous May.
Fortunately, the overzealous patriots were eventually convinced that they were just looking at the lifeless dummy of a Soviet pilot.
The subsequent reconstruction of the landing showed that in the final phase of the descent, strong southerly winds gusting up to nine meters per second had caused the Descent Module under its parachute to land around 3.5 kilometers from the area where the ejection seat and its hatch had impacted the ground, just 300 meters from each other. As on the previous ship, a few rings of the thermal layers had detached from the capsule when the wind dragged it for around 150 meters by its main 574-square-meter parachute along the clay surface covered with more than meter of snow. The 18-square-meter braking parachute, still attached to the packing container of the main parachute, was found around 100 meters from the Descent Module. (463)
In the meantime, the pilot dummy that ejected from the capsule at an altitude of around seven kilometers and then separated from the ejection seat, opened both of its parachutes and drifted in the winds for another 6.5 kilometers, touching down on the south side of Malaya Sosnovka. It was found lying on the ground, still attached to its parachutes on the shoulders and to the inflatable boat and the emergency kit on its waist.
On March 28, 1961, a day after TASS announced that Zvezdochka had been safely returned to Moscow, the Vice President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Aleksandr Topchiev conducted a press-conference for Soviet and foreign journalists. According to the Soviet journalist Yaroslav Golovanov, the event featured Chernushka and Zvezdochka, but was also attended by Gagarin, Titov and other soon-to-be world-famous cosmonauts. Golovanov mockingly described photographers pushing each other to take photos of the dogs, while completely ignoring the cosmonauts sitting in the front row, as if it was not the Soviet system that kept unflown space trainees in total oblivion. (18)
Outcome of the mission
Despite the mostly flawless mission of the second Vostok-3A variant, its Descent Module once again overflew its projected landing site, this time by 660 kilometers. As in the previous mission, the umbilical cable connecting the Descent Module and the Service Module had failed to cut off as planned, and kept the otherwise separated pieces of the spacecraft tethered to each other until the heat of reentry finished the job. (231) And once again, inexplicably, the problem would be left without being addressed before Gagarin's launch in April.
The program leaders did pay attention to the fact that it took professional rescuers almost 24 hours to get to both Vostoks after landing. Therefore, the search and rescue force was greatly expanded and upgraded with new assets such as large custom-equipped An-12 aircraft for operations over land, long-range Tu-95 bombers to support sea landings and heavy-lift Mi-6 helicopters with more range and capacity than was provided by the older Mi-4s. Some new radio equipment allowed to simultaneously track the locations of the Descent Module and of the pilot. (463)
Overall, despite continuing tests and a clear understanding among the top officials that Vostok's pilot had little chance of survival in case of a water landing, Kamanin expressed confidence in his diaries that everything was set for the first piloted flight.
During a meeting of top officials on March 29, at the office of Dmitry Ustinov, who supervised the rocket industry for the Soviet government, Korolev showed an album with photos of the Earth's surface taken from Vostoks during their flights on March 9 and March 25. According to Kamanin, one photo showed the Turkish town of Alexandretta (Iskenderun), revealing a concrete runway, and several photos captured "flying saucers." Land features on photos from both flights were matching each other very well, confirming the high accuracy of the orbit maintained by both missions.
Most importantly, during the March 29 meeting, all key officials confirmed the readiness for flight and drafted a report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party proposing to launch the first human mission in space between April 10 and 20, 1961. As usual, the document also contained the draft of a public announcement about the upcoming mission to be released after a successful launch.
On March 30, Ustinov wrote a memo to the Central Committee declaring preparations for the first piloted space flight completed and informing the Kremlin that the launch could be made between April 10 and April 20, 1961. It was approved by the Presidium of the Central Committee on April 3, 1961. (509)
Vostok-3A spacecraft (left) and the third stage of the 8K72 launch vehicle (foreground) during pre-launch processing on March 18, 1961.
Cosmonauts examine Vostok's ejection seat (foreground) and the third stage of the launch vehicle during their first visit to Tyuratam on March 18, 1961.
Gagarin inside Vostok probably photograped during boarding simulation on March 21, 1961.
Valentin Bondarenko, one of the member of the original cosmonaut group, died during a training accident on March 23, 1961, in the midst of the Vostok-3A No. 2 launch campaign.
The mannequin that flew aboard the Vostok-3KA No. 2 spacecraft. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
TV images, likely received on the ground from different cameras, show the dummy "pilot" inside the spacecraft.
Descent Module of the Vostok-3A No. 2 spacecraft at the landing site on March 26, 1961.
Zvezdochka after extraction from the Descent Module at the landing site on March 26, 1961.
Post-landing operations with the pilot dummy aboard Vostok-3A. Note font differences on the signage from the one used on the dummy shown in the TV transmisions above.
Soviet stamp dedicated to the flight of the 5th spacecraft satellite on March 25, 1961.