Alexander Zheleznyakov, translated by Mikhail Vorobyov.
VOSKHOD-1: 40 YEARS ON
40 years ago on 12th October 1964, the “Voskhod-1” spacecraft was launched by the USSR. Its crew was Commander Vladimir Komarov, scientific specialist Konstantin Feoktistov and doctor Boris Egorov. It was for the first time in the world that not only a pilot but also two other cosmonauts whose tasks were to carry out technical and medical research and experiments were onboard a spaceship.
The flight was executed successfully and the day after the launch the descent cabin safely landed on Soviet territory, the total flight duration being 24 hours 17 minutes 3 seconds.
This was undoubtedly an important landmark for manned cosmonautics, since after October 1964 a spacecraft’s crew consisted of more than one man as a rule. It appeared much more effective both for piloting the ship and for executing scientific programs.
The "Voskhod-1" spaceflight was, however a very politicized one both on account of events which preceded the launch and which occurred in Moscow during the flight, about which I want to tell you about in detail.
As the readers may remember, at the start of the 1960s the USSR and USA both managed to send the first men into space, and worked on creating spacecraft for regular use : the Americans developed "Gemini" and the Soviet Union worked on "Soyuz". The Americans were ahead planning to launch their ship in early 1965. But "Soyuz" was still only on the drawing board and would go into orbit some time after its transatlantic “colleague”.
Such state of affairs did not suit the Soviet top management and, especially, the leader of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushev. He got used to Soviet leadership in the development of space so he demanded of Sergei Korolev who headed the Soviet manned space program that he once again outstrip Americans and send a crew with more than a single seat into space first. Morevoer the plan was to outdo the Americans in all respects, with three cosmonauts being in the crew – more than two planned for “Gemini”. Korolev objected that it was impossible on technical grounds but his protests were rejected and November, 1964 was appointed as the deadline for such a flight.
One must try to understand the atmosphere of the Soviet society of that period to understand why Korolev undertook to solve a task that seemed to be insoluble, though under strong pressure. He simply couldn’t act in other way!
So, Sergey Korolev went to his OKB-1 design bureau and brought to his employees’ notice the “decision of the Party and government” and ordered them to think how to meet the challenge. The “Vostok” spaceship which existed at that time had been used for six solo manned flights could not be used for the new task. Theoretically it was possible to squeeze two cosmonauts into it, but as to three…
However, at a point when hope for the successful solution of the problem had begun to evaporate one of OKB-1 engineers came in the Korolev’s office. He suggested the cosmonauts be without space suits for that flight. In this case it was possible to remove from the ship some life-support systems to reduce its weight and through such an economy launch a three-person crew. A system of soft landing onboard would allow return to earth without the cosmonauts leaving the ship as they had had to for the “Vostok” flights.
A Daring if Reckless Solution
Naturally, initially Korolev gave a hostile reception to the given offer. He said nobody would risk their lives onboard such unreliable and dangerous craft. But the engineer replied there would be such people and he would be the first. That engineer was Konstantin Feoktistov and his offer was not mere words – he was to become a “Voskhod” crew member.
On considering Feoktistov’s offer Korolev concluded that it was the only possible way to do. So launch preparation entered a new phase.
Another important problem to be solved appeared – soft landing of a descent cabin with cosmonauts inside. As we know, all the “Vostok” cosmonauts left their descent cabin and landed by parachute. It turned out to be impossible to do this in a three crew variant since weight characteristics of the ship did not allow the installation of three catapults. The solution suggested was to counteract the vertical descent speed of the cabin by firing engines to provide a soft landing just before landing.
But how could the engines be made to turn on at the proper time when the craft was only a few metres from the ground? It was impossible to rely on the cosmonauts - even the most trained person couldn’t be relied on to press the button at the right moment. An automatic system was required to execute that task.
The suggested solution of the problem was simple and a rather original one though not particularly reliable. They installed a sliding metal pin in the bottom part of descent cabin. On touching the ground it gave out an electric signal to ignite the solid-fuel engines for a soft landing. By the way, only the two “Voskhod” spacecraft landed using this technology. "Soyuz" had more reliable soft landing system. But in those days the problems of safety were regarded as secondary and everything had been done to meet the demands of challenge given by N.Khrushev.
So on October 12th 1964 "Voskhod - 1" was launched.
Up under Krushev
Down Under Brezhnev !
Now the time has come to tell about the "political" background to the accomplishment of the flght.
While Sergey Korolev and other rocketry specialists were busy with launch preparation, the cardinal changes in the top management of the USSR were brewing. Nikita Khrushev, the head of Communist party of the USSR and the Soviet government was about to be replaced. Naturally, rocket engineers did not know about the struggle for the supreme power which went on in the Kremlin and, they along with all the Soviet people, were presented with a fait accompli. The communique about Khrushev’s retiring on a pension and assigning Leonid Brezhnev head of the Communist party of the USSR instead of him was published as “Voskhod-1” crew worked in Earth orbit.
These events influenced in no way the flight schedule but the crew of the ship appeared of relatively minor interest on the return to Earth. The tradition of magnificent grand welcomes of cosmonauts in Moscow was broken. Even their successful returning was reported less formally than usual and with some delay.
However, the cosmonauts did receive all the honours they deserved : Komarov, Feoktistov and Egorov became Heroes of Soviet Union; postage stamps, envelopes and cards devoted to their flight were issued by the Ministry of Communications of the USSR. They were met with honours everywhere they appeared. But many people noticed already then how cosmonauts felt like staying close to the new Soviet leader. Nikita Khrushev had always emphasized his affinity to cosmonauts and Brezhnev, on the contrary, kept them somewhat at a distance.
As the future was to show, it was really like this. The loudest successes of the Soviet cosmonautics fell in the “Khrushev era” and Brezhnev’s priority was to keep and strengthen his personal authority. Space exploration appeared to be a less important aspect of the Soviet empire then. The USSR lost the Moon race and so lost its primacy in space.
But all these political aspects couldn’t push into the background the feat accomplished in October 1964 by the soviet cosmonauts Komarov, Feoktistov and Egorov and thousands of scientists and engineers who made possible flight of "Voskhod-1". Much will be forgotten by history, but the first crew is already entered in the annals of space age and will remain in it forever.
("ORBIT", Journal of the Astro Space Stamp Society, Issue ¹ 63, October 2004).