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Soyuz-9: New flight-duration record

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jan 16, 2016, 14:48 UTC

Sen—Although the race to the Moon was over for all effective purposes in 1969, the Space Race between the USSR and the United States had continued unabated. However, with its super-rocket project in tatters after two failed launches in 1969, Moscow had to rely almost exclusively on its brand-new Soyuz spacecraft for more space "firsts."

Thanks to its flexible architecture and relatively sizable habitation module, the Soyuz could be customized for a variety of tasks, including long-duration missions. Now it was finally possible to break the flight-duration record set by the crew of Gemini-7 back in December 1965, and it could be achieved in much more comfortable conditions.

Specifically for the long-duration flight, a docking mechanism was removed from one of the test versions of the Soyuz spacecraft, while the ship's life-support system was beefed up to provide for a pair of cosmonauts in orbit for at least 20 days.

The mission, which would be designated Soyuz-9, was originally planned around the 100th birthday of the first Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in April 1970, however it had to be postponed until June of the same year.

The Soyuz-9 spacecraft lifted off from Pad 31 in Tyuratam on June 1, 1970, at 22:00 Moscow Time. Aboard Soyuz-9 were commander Andriyan Nikolaev, the veteran of the Vostok-3 mission, and flight engineer Vitaly Sevastyanov, making his first space flight. The first night time launch in the Soviet space flight was dictated by the choice of the planned landing conditions.

Nine minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft successfully entered a 220 by 207-kilometer orbit.

As the crew was settling in space, Soviet media disclosed that the mission would be conducted solo for the purposes of science and technology, however the official reports gave no clue on the duration of the flight. The Soviet press also announced that the crew received good wishes from Neil Armstrong, who had become the first man on the Moon less than a year earlier, though that latter fact was not mentioned. At the time, Armstrong was visiting the USSR.

After 17 orbits, the crew manually oriented the spacecraft for an orbit-correction burn, which placed it into a 266 by 247-kilometer orbit.

Not surprisingly, the flight program was packed with medical tests. The cosmonauts also had many opportunities to photograph Earth's surface and the atmosphere.

The crew did follow a rudimentary one-hour exercise routine twice a day, which was designed to prevent the negative effects of weightlessness during a long flight… or so Soviet medics thought.

On June 3, Soviet reports proudly announced that Nikolaev and Sevastyanov had a pleasure to became the first cosmonauts to shave in space, thus giving the first hint that the crew was in space for a long haul.

The TASS news agency reported that crew members had comfortable rest in sleeping bags located inside the habitation module—essentially business class conditions compared to those of the Gemini astronauts who had to sleep in their flight chairs. The crew also had a heater for food, while the menu included various soups, steaks, ham and fruit juices among other things. The crew also followed current events on Earth, in particular, the cosmonauts were interested in the football World Cup.

On June 8, fellow cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who happened to be Nikolaev's wife, started a long tradition of paying visits to mission control for tele-conferences between the crew and their family members. Despite the late hours in Moscow, Tereshkova brought their daughter Aleyona, who turned six on that day and pleasantly surprised her dad when she took the microphone.

On June 14, Nikolaev told mission control that he had seen several small meteors entering and burning up in Earth's atmosphere. On the same day, the crew also "voted" for the members of the Supreme Council of the USSR, not surprisingly, giving their votes to the Communist Party.

Last but not least, the crew was also given their first "day off" in space, which was highlighted with an Earth-to-space chess game. The crew battled the ground-based team led by the patriarch of the Soviet cosmonaut training Nikolai Kamanin. TV images of the historic match were transmitted around the world. Due to the limited communications range of Soviet ground stations, the game had to be interrupted many times and finally ended with a draw.

On June 16, the Soviet press announced that Soyuz-9 had logged 352 hours in space, unprecedented in the history of the spaceflight. Soyuz-9 formally broke the flight-duration record on June 17, 1970, when the mission exceeded the 14-day flight of Gemini-7 by 10 per cent, as required by the rules of the International Aeronatuics Federation, FAI. Still, Soyuz-9 remained in orbit for two more days.

The descent module of the Soyuz-9 spacecraft successfully landed around 75 kilometers west of Karaganda on June 19, 1970, at 14:59 Moscow Time.

According to the official reports, the cosmonauts felt "well" after the 18-day flight. Only years later, the cosmonauts themselves admitted that upon landing they had been in a very bad physical shape. According to Sevastyanov, he could barely climb to the exit hatch and then helplessly waited for rescuers, who fortunately were on hand immediately. The cosmonauts could not walk and had to be carried to an evacuation helicopter. While onboard, Nikolaev briefly lost consciousness. Upon arrival to Karaganda, the crew developed high fever, while urgent medical checks revealed that their hearts had severely contracted, among other health problems. Both cosmonauts could not get out of bed for almost a week, but fortunately, their condition gradually improved and they made a full recovery.

Not surprisingly, the Soviet space medics embarked on a major re-evaluation of procedures to combat the adverse effects of weightlessness in space. As history would show, they learned the lesson of Soyuz-9 exceptionally well.