Joint flight of Vostok-3 and Vostok-4
In August 1962, the USSR continued its triumphant conquest of space with another sensation -- a simultaneous mission by two manned ships. With only a pair of Soviet and two US missions preceding them, Vostok-3 and Vostok-4 not only far exceeded the flight-duration records of all those flights combined, but also appeared to be mastering the capability of "formation flying" in space.
Preparations for flight
The preparation for the simultaneous flight of several spacecraft started in the USSR in February 1962. A major incentive to fly two or even three manned vehicles reportedly came from NASA, which on the same month succeeded in a three-orbit manned flight of the Mercury spacecraft with John Glenn onboard. At the political level Dmitry Ustinov, who supervised the Soviet rocket industry, endorsed the idea. Ustinov then relayed the proposal to Khrushchev and the Soviet leader gave an enthusiastic go ahead to the mission, which was supposed to be "another proof for the entire world that the Americans were hopelessly behind the USSR."
The Soviet Air Force selected Andriyan Nikolaev and Pavel Popovich for the flight. However, as of the beginning of 1962, the launch dates were still unclear. (466) In his diary entry dated February 8, General Kamanin, who led cosmonaut training, complained that the gap between the second and the third Vostok mission could reach 8-9 months and only most optimistically the new mission could take place in March. However on February 17, Chief Designer Sergei Korolev relayed to Kamanin an order from Dmitry Ustinov to have a pair of cosmonauts ready within 30 days for a dual flight. A total of seven cosmonauts were in active training at the time, including Nikolaev, Popovich, Shonin, Volynov, Nelyubov, Bykovsky and Komarov. By February 20, Kamanin narrowed the team to Nikolaev, Popovich, Nelyubov and Bykovsky. At the time, the launch was preliminarily planned for March 10-12. Moreover, the flight of a woman-cosmonaut was planned for the middle of August 1962.
However, by the beginning of March, technical problems in the preparations for the launch of a Zenit spy satellite, which needed the same pad and the same rocket, pushed the manned mission to the end of March or the beginning of April 1962. Around March 7, Korolev told Kamanin that the mission had now been scheduled for April 5-10. By mid-April, the launches slipped further -- to May 10-15. (574)
Korolev asked his radio-electronics expert Boris Chertok to ensure reliable communications between the two spacecraft and the capability of ground control to monitor these contacts. He also personally called Yuri Bykov, a leading specialist in Vostok's radio systems at NII Radio Communications research institute to reiterate the importance of communications. Chertok and his colleagues started intensive training involving radio engineers, antennas specialists and communications personnel at military unit No. 32103.
Flight duration controversy
While engineers were resolving the technical challenges of the joint mission, military and space officials got engaged into an already familiar and mostly pointless argument over the mission duration. The controversy would last for most of 1962. Korolev and Keldysh were insisting on a three-day flight, while Kamanin, apparently supported by his superiors at the Air Force, would not agree to more than a day-long flight with a post-launch extension up to two days, conditional on the health of the crew. (466, 574) Although Kamanin explained his objections by the need to increase the flight duration more gradually with more frequent flights, it probably hid the real desire of this conservative stalinist, who by chance had ended up in charge of peripheral role of cosmonaut training, to show who was the boss. Not to mention that the "more frequent" manned missions demanded by Kamanin were technically and logistically impossible and the Soviet Air Force had little use or interest in manned space vehicles. Ironically, Kamanin complained that military space leaders were rejecting manned space flight "against common sense."
By February 24, Korolev apparently secured an agreement from Kamanin's superiors at the Air Force for a three-day flight. In mid-April, Kamanin appealed to the rocket and military industry heavy weights close to the Kremlin - Leonid Smirnov and Sergei Zverev, but both refused to discuss the issue without Korolev. Moreover, Zverev simply sent Kamanin a copy of Korolev's flight plan with a request to sign it!
On April 26, the first Zenit-2 spy satellite, officially announced as Kosmos-4, reached orbit successfully, following the previous failure of the third stage of the Vostok rocket -- the same type of vehicle that carried manned missions. Another launch of the Zenit spacecraft was planned for around May 5-10, followed by the dual manned mission on May 20-30. Around the same time, Nikolaev, Nelyubov, Popovich and Bykovsky made a trip to the Black Sea training grounds in Feodosiya, where they practiced parachute jumps into water and on land, using Vostok's landing system.
Then, the second Zenit launch ended with a first stage failure and a fiery crash of the entire vehicle just 300 meters from the launch pad. What's worse, one of the strap-on boosters of the rocket fell off while still on the pad and its fire caused considerable damage to the facility. The manned mission had to be delayed until the end of July at the earliest. Still during the summer, Kamanin mentioned the possibility of several manned missions, ironically, reaching duration from 8 to 10 days. (574)
By the beginning of July, Vladimir Barmin, the head of launch systems development, announced that all the repairs in the wake of the Vostok rocket crash at Site 1 in Tyuratam (Baikonur) would be completed by August 1. Korolev immediately called up a meeting of top officials including his associates at OKB-1, Bushuev, Feoktistov, Raushenbakh and Chertok. The Air Force was represented by Kamanin, Karpov and Yazdovsky. Korolev played the ace card telling about his meeting with Khrushchev (on June 13) and the Soviet leader's endorsement of a three-day flight. When Kamanin (who still resisted the plan despite the advice of all his superiors and associates) dared to object, Korolev accused the Air Force of shameless self-promotion and over-rewarding Gagarin and Titov with foreign trips and thus having "lost them for the space (program)." Korolev promised to prepare the bureau's own engineers to fly the next-generation Soyuz spacecraft. (Besides his frustration with Kamanin's stubborn conservatism, Korolev felt bitter about all the glory enjoyed by cosmonauts and their Air Force superiors, while the real authors of space firsts were hidden behind the Iron Curtain by orders from the Kremlin.)
Giving extra support to Korolev during the meeting, Chertok confirmed that the ship's power supply system would support a mission lasting up to seven days, while some energy-saving efforts could enable to fly up to 10 days. Bushuev signed off on a double redundancy of the life-support system. Raushenbakh guaranteed the capabilities of the attitude control system, including propellant supplies for a manual control exercise during a three-day flight.
On July 16, Leonid Smirnov called a meeting of the Military Industrial Commission to review the dual manned space flight. On the insistence of Keldysh, Vernov made a presentation about the radiation levels in the upper atmosphere after a US high-altitude nuclear test. Vernov assured that radiation levels would fall back to normal within five-ten days. Korolev reported that the launch could take place sometimes between August 5 and 10. (574)
The argument over the flight duration flared up again, prompting Smirnov to hold a smaller gathering in his office (466) Smirnov also made a fruitless effort to convince Kamanin along with at least one of his cronies to accept the inevitable and endorse a longer mission. Kamanin responded with quoting a September 1961 report by space medicine experts (from an aviation medicine institute subordinated to the Air Force) that "there were no grounds for planning space flight lasting more than one or two days." (574)
Smirnov recommended that Korolev review the duration issue once again and report on the results at a later date. Chertok and Bushuev tried to convince Korolev not to ruin relations with the Air Force and assured him that it would be no problem to land the ship after one day or even after two orbits, if the health of cosmonauts required. However Korolev yelled at them that it had to be a matter of principle that the design bureau dictated the conditions, while they (Chertok and Bushuev) were appeasing the Air Force. (466) However, by July 18, Korolev offered the Air Force a "compromise" in the form of the flight "up to three days." Obviously, Kamanin remained unconvinced ...and practically alone in his senseless opposition. Ironically, it was him who dutifully recorded all the episodes of his losing battle, along with many other priceless details of the Soviet space history. (574)
On July 26, Korolev organized a meeting with cosmonauts and other officials at OKB-1 in Podlipki, where he formally approved a flight assignment for "up to three days." Korolev's engineers also asked the pilots to observe each other's ships and free-flying upper stages of their launch vehicles. Moreover, they assigned Nikolaev onboard Vostok-3 to watch the launch of the second spacecraft a day later. With his usual conservatism, Kamanin reported that the pilot's angle of view was just seven degrees and the attitude control system had only 2-3 hours worth of propellant. At the meeting, Korolev also invited newly recruited female cosmonauts to come to the launch site. (574) For at least one of the young women, it would be the last opportunity to watch preparations for a real manned launch before her own mission.
Another "first" proposed for both pilots on Vostok-3 and Vostok-4 would be an attempt to unbuckle their "seatbelts" and fly weightless in the cabin. Neither Titov, let alone Gagarin, had had this opportunity (and Mercury astronauts simply did not have enough room). On July 27, several cosmonauts tried the procedure in simulated weightlessness onboard a Tu-104 aircraft. (574)
During their missions, both cosmonauts were also assigned to conduct a series of Earth-observation sessions, which were planned based on the experience accumulated during the Vostok-2 mission a year earlier. Nikolaev was assigned to photograph the Earth surface, while Popovich was to focus on the horizon and the terminator line. In addition, both vehicles had movie cameras intended to document the pilots during the flight. (52)
On the insistence of Korolev, on July 28, another Zenit-2 spy satellite blasted off with the main goal of certifying the safe operation of the Vostok rocket and re-testing some of the systems on the manned spacecraft. With the Zenit safely in orbit under the official name of Kosmos-7, the State Commission convened on July 30 with 70 people in attendance and set the manned launches for August 9 and 10. Despite objections from Korolev, the commission approved Kamanin's proposal to send task teams (apparently including cosmonauts) to Kamchatka, Yakutsk, Lvov and Leningrad (574) (to man ground stations).
Three days later, numerous specialists, officials and cosmonauts started arriving at the heat-stricken Tyuratam (Baikonur) test range in preparation for the first dual manned launch. Nikolaev and Popovich flew in onboard two separate passenger planes on August 2 accompanied by numerous Air Force and training center specialists. Korolev and his top engineers arrived a day later. By that time, the spacecraft 3KA No. 5 (Vostok-3) had already passed integrated (final) tests, while the vehicle 3KA No. 6 (Vostok-4) still needed some work that could delay the launch by one or two days. (574)
On August 4, both Vostok pilots tried their flight suits in a dedicated room inside the assembly building at Site 2. They also attached their parachute system and then sat inside their spacecraft. They also tested onboard recording and communications gear. Between 11:00 and 13:00, Raushenbakh instructed the cosmonauts on how to observe their upper stages and each other's ships. At 14:00 Korolev met with Kamanin and the cosmonauts. Because the mission of Kosmos-7 had proved that the thermal control system maintained a comfortable 17 degrees onboard the satellite during its four-day controlled flight, Korolev told the cosmonauts to abandon the plan of sending their ships into a slow spin during the passive phases of the flight in order to even their exposure to the sun. Following this meeting, Korolev, Titov and Kamanin went to meet soldiers and officers of the launch personnel to thank them for their work.
On August 5, engineers made a third attempt to complete integrated testing of the 3KA No. 6 spacecraft, while top specialists Alekseev, Bykov and Feoktistov gave cosmonauts more trials with parachute, radio and landing systems respectively. (574)
On the evening of August 6, Korolev chaired a technical meeting, which confirmed that both spacecraft and their rockets are ready for launch on August 10 and August 11, 1962.
On the afternoon of August 7, Nikolaev made another test suiting up and sat in his ejection seat, also practicing unbuckling and buckling up again. Not surprisingly, Kamanin recorded his skepticism about the safety of the exercise. The State Commission overseeing the launch convened at 7 p.m. and formally announced the crew: Nikolaev would pilot Vostok-3 with Bykovsky serving as backup, and Popovich would launch onboard Vostok-4 backed up by Komarov. In addition, Volynov was appointed as backup pilot for both missions.
Still, on August 8, engineers frantically worked to prepare troublesome 3KA No. 6 for flight. At 09:15, Kamanin bumped in Korolev, who told him that the first launch would now take place no earlier than August 11.
Given the very tight schedule of two launches from the same pad, the launch vehicle with the Vostok-3 spacecraft was scheduled for rollout from the assembly building around 19:00 in the evening of August 9, instead of the traditional morning time. However shortly before the move, an uncertified fastener was discovered in a backup ejection seat. That fastener was earlier supposed to be replaced with a larger piece on both flight and backup seats. Signatures, which would normally confirm the installation of the particular equipment in this case were "covering" a range of operations or technicians. While the seat for Vostok-4 was still in processing, the seat for Vostok-3 was already onboard and had to be carefully taken out of the vehicle for checks. Korolev exploded with a burst of rage spilled on his accidental victims -- an engineer and a technician -- and yelled at their boss Semen Alekseev "I don't want ever see these (people) around." (In his memoirs, Chertok assured that same specialists continued working on the next ejection seat as nothing happened.) (466) Finally, at 21:00, the rocket with the spacecraft rolled to the launch pad.
On August 10, at 13:15, Nikolaev and Bykovsky came to the launch pad and had a formal meeting with the launch personnel. Nikolaev and Bykovsky accompanied by Korolev then rode an elevator to the top of the rocket and Nikolaev sat for half an hour inside his spacecraft, as Korolev was giving him updates on the latest changes to the equipment. At 14:00 Nikolaev and Popovich went to have their medical tests. At 17:00, Feoktistov instructed the cosmonauts on various contingencies during the flight. (574)
Vostok-3 and Vostok-4 missions
On the morning of Aug. 11, 1962, Nikolaev and Bykovsky left their small cottage at Site 2 and went to the assembly building for suiting up. A bus then delivered them to the launch pad at 11:30 (local time) and Nikolaev climbed into the Vostok-3 spacecraft.
The launch took place as scheduled at 11:30 Moscow Time and the spacecraft separated from its upper stage in a safe orbit 720 seconds later. Nikolaev tried but failed to catch a glimpse of the rocket's upper stage flying away.
During his fourth orbit Nikolaev had a "telephone conversation" with Khrushchev, but by his own admission, heard only half of it, due to very loud noise in the radio system. Moving very carefully at first, he unbuckled from his seat and floated around the cabin, easily practicing using his radio and shooting with a film camera. He would eventually fly free four times during his mission. (574)
Vostok-3 was followed by the Vostok-4 lifting off less than 24 hours later, at 11:08 Moscow Time on August 12, 1962. As it transpired many years later, both vehicles were launched from the same launch pad within 0.5 second from the scheduled time - a huge achievement in itself.
Nikolaev oriented his spacecraft in order to monitor the liftoff of Vostok-4, but admitted in his post-flight report that he had not seen anything. Yet, Nikolaev reported that while flying over Turkey he had an excellent opportunity to watch cities and easily distinguish airport runways, ships at sea, roads and piers.
During the mission, Gagarin and many Soviet space officials monitored the flight from a command post located in a three-story building, next to the vehicle assembly building at Site 2 in Tyuratam (Baikonur). (466)
As Vostok-3 had completed 29 orbits, telemetry showed that temperature onboard the spacecraft fell from 27 degrees at launch to 13 degrees and remained at this level until orbit 36. Data also showed that during 10 "night" orbits, the vehicle's onboard Tral telemetry system was not working. However Nikolaev explained that he had intentionally kept the heating system down. (574)
On Aug. 14, Nikolaev and Popovich woke up around 04:00 Moscow Time. Soon a ground station near Khabarovsk relayed a message from Nikolaev: ...feeling great, flying according to the program." Similar information came from Popovich. (574) With these good news, the State Commission convened at 07:00 with an agenda to schedule the Vostok-3 mission landing during its 65th orbit after four days, with Vostok-4 returning after three days and 49 orbits. Given high winds at the landing site near Karaganda in Kazakhstan reaching up to 20 meters per second, even Kamanin did not object to extending Nikolaev's flight until August 15.
In the afternoon of that same day (at 17:00), the State Commission reconvened again, this time to discuss extending the Vostok-4 mission by one day. Prior to the meeting, Korolev and Smirnov consulted with Khrushchev and Frol Kozlov, who had no objections, as long as there were no health or technical problems. In turn, the highest military official at the command post, Marshall Rudenko, requested an approval of his boss -- Marshall Grechko, the Minister of Defense. Thus, most officials came to the meeting with the intention of pressing ahead with an extended mission, even though Korolev told Kamanin and others before the gathering that he did not see a huge need for extending Popovich's stay in space (probably given the already record-breaking flight to be achieved by Nikolaev onboard Vostok-3).
As usual, Kamanin objected the idea of extending the flight citing strong winds forecast at the three planned landing sites and data indicating a trend toward lower temperature onboard Vostok-4. This time he got Gagarin, Bushuev, Feoktistov and Belousov on his side. Still, it was decided to extend the flight if Popovich himself expressed the desire to fly longer.
Kamanin, Korolev and Gagarin were delegated to have a communication session with Popovich, but the entire gathering went to the command post at Site 2 to witness the conversation. Asked by Korolev about his situation, Popovich readily responded that he was in great shape and planned to land during the 65th orbit. This response settled all arguments and Smirnov then called Kozlov and Khrushchev confirming them that despite a few objections the majority had decided to extend the flight.
Events of August 15
Upon waking up at 04:00, Popovich ensured ground control that he was in excellent health but the temperature decline in the cabin was worrying him. Steps he took to fix the situation did not have any effects. Kamanin, who had spent the whole night monitoring the situation and querying various specialists, was now all in arms demanding a landing.
On August 15, the State Commission started work at 07:00 in the morning. By that time, ground control had received information that that temperature onboard Vostok-4 had fallen to just +10 degrees and humidity had declined to 35 percent, prompting the medical team also to demand immediate landing.
Now, Keldysh, Kamanin and Rudenko voted for bringing Vostok-4 back to Earth during the originally planned 49th orbit. However, Smirnov and other officials, who had just gotten approval from Grechko and Khrushchev for a four-day flight felt embarrassed to return the ship after less than three days. They were inclined to press ahead with the approved program. Finally, in the midst of the discussion, a radio message was delivered from Popovich reporting "groza" (thunderstorm). In a glossary of code words used by the secretive Soviet space program, "groza" meant a severe motion sickness reaching vomiting.
Now, practically everybody was demanding the immediate return of Vostok-4, which was just 40 minutes away from the point where the mission had to be committed to the reentry in order to reach a planned landing site. However, Smirnov and Korolev still insisted on talking to Popovich first. Despite assurances from Popovich during the next communications session that he only had seen a meteorological phenomenon and felt just great, the majority voted for sticking with the original landing time after three days. (466, 574)
On August 15, after four days in orbit, Nikolaev landed successfully north of the Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan. His landing site was strewn with rocks but he was lucky to touch down on a small spot free of obstacles.
Six minutes later Popovich touched down 305 kilometers to the west. He saw a search plane in 20 minutes. Although Kamanin cited a post-flight report from Popovich about a rather uneventful landing, many years later, the cosmonaut revealed in an interview with the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine that after ejecting from the spacecraft and starting his parachute descent, he had struggled with very strong winds and barely escaped injury during a very rough touchdown. He then ran feverishly around the landing site and waved to the rescue plane in a fruitless effort to dissuade inexperienced rescue doctors from making dangerous and totally needless parachute jumps. After they had jumped anyway, Popovich frantically rushed to catch and fold their parachutes dragged mercilessly by the wind and attended at least one young military doctor with a bloodied face. (67)
The Vostok-3 mission lasted 94 hours and Vostok-4 spent 71 hours in flight. The Soviet manned space flight record exceeded the America's only three-orbit mission by 60 orbits! Chertok and other top Soviet engineers were given three days off to participate in celebrations in Moscow, on the condition they return back to Tyuratam no later than August 18, in preparation for a launch campaign to Venus, with the first unmanned probe set to liftoff on August 25. (466)
The simultaneous flight of two Vostok spacecraft and their close proximity in orbit prompted some speculations in the West, that the Soviet Union had already mastered the rendezvous techniques. The official Soviet press obviously had never clarified that the Vostok had no orbit correction capabilities and that the two spacecraft owed their "formation" flying exclusively to the highly accurate performance of their launch vehicles. As the mission progressed, the two spacecraft slowly drifted apart and their pilots could not maneuver to approach any closer than their original orbits had taken them.
Sergei Korolev (second from left) along with A.G. Zakharov, A. S. Kirilov, G.A. Tyulin greets the personnel at Site 1 in Tyuratam, during the preparation for the launch of Vostok-3 and Vostok-4 spacecraft in August 1962. Credit: RGANDT
Nikolaev in August 1961, when he served as a backup pilot for the Vostok-2 mission.
Nikolaev boards Vostok-3. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Nikolaev on TV screen either in mission control during the Vostok-3 mission or in pre-flight training in simulator at Star City.
Popovich boards Vostok-4 on August 12, 1962. Credit: RGANDT
Popovich demonstrates weightlessness onboard Vostok-4.
Popovich on TV screen either in mission control during the Vostok-4 mission or in pre-flight training in simulator at Star City.
A Soviet poster celebrating first four Vostok missions.