article image

Voskhod: The world's first space crew

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jul 4, 2015, 23:17 UTC

Sen—After the historic flight of Valentina Tereshkova in June 1963 four additional launches of the Vostok spacecraft were planned. Unlike previous missions aimed to break records and score points in the propaganda war with the U.S., these would be more routine flights, mostly aimed at persuading the reluctant military the usefulness of piloted spacecraft. However the Soviet Ministry of Defense still had lukewarm support for the idea, while the Kremlin demanded more space firsts. Just in time, the news reached Moscow about an imminent launch of NASA's brand-new Gemini spacecraft capable of carrying two astronauts. To upstage the Americans, Soviet engineers decided to squeeze three cosmonauts into a heavily modified Vostok spacecraft.

Such a radical upgrade stretched to their very limits even the awesome capabilities of the Vostok. Not only had the spacecraft to lose its bulky ejection seat, but even the protective spacesuits had to be left behind. As a result, three crew members would have no way to escape in case of an emergency during the ascent and they would face certain death had the capsule lost its air pressure practically any time during the mission.

Some extra safety was added with a backup braking engine, which could push the capsule off its orbit, in the event of the main propulsion system failing. On paper, the multi-seat Vostok could last in orbit up to three days, but officials limited the actual mission to one day.

To launch the overweight Vostok into orbit, its launch vehicle had to be upgraded with a more powerful upper stage.

Ironically, the leading developer of the Vostok, Konstantin Feoktistov, had fought long and hard to get onto the crew and he finally got his wish. He would be accompanied by the military pilot Vladimir Komarov and by a medical specialist Boris Yegorov.

On Oct. 6, 1964, an unmanned version of the modified Vostok lifted off into orbit under a cover-up name Kosmos-47. Its mission paved the way to a manned launch less than a week later.

The world's first multi-seat spacecraft lifted off on Oct. 12, 1964, and after reaching orbit was announced as Voskhod (sunrise). However behind the scenes, Soviet engineers, who had been in the know about the risks involved, nick-named the mission "space circus." Still, the flight did bring sensational headlines across the world. According to the veteran of the project Boris Chertok, the "new" spacecraft was even compared to a space cruiser by an unsuspecting U.S. politician!

In the meantime, inside the cramped compartment, the cosmonauts conducted an array of medical checks, observed the Earth and tried to record the behavior of liquids in a see-through containers for the benefit of engineers designing fuel tanks for space boosters. They also practiced non-stop operations onboard the spacecraft, working and sleeping in shifts. As the first day of the mission was drawing to a close, Feoktistov and Komarov asked mission control to keep them in orbit for one more day but to no avail.

After a 24-hour historic but fortunately uneventful flight, the ball-shaped capsule with three cosmonauts safely reentered the Earth atmosphere and touched down with the help of a new rocket-propelled landing system. Unknown to the world, it was actually the first time, Soviet cosmonauts landed inside their ship instead of ejecting from the descending capsule in mid-air as all Vostok pilots had done before.

To their astonishment, after several days of stonewalling, the cosmonauts were informed that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had just phoned them in orbit, had been removed from power in a bloodless coup. When the cosmonauts finally returned to Moscow, they were greeted by the new boss in the Kremlin, Leonid Brezhnev.