At first glance, the flight of Soyuz 4 seemed certain to suffer misfortune. Its lone pilot, Vladimir Shatalov, arrived at the Baikonur launch pad in the desolate steppe of Central Asia on 13 January 1969, to become the Soviet Union’s 13th man in space. He had already earned recognition as one of the most outstanding members of his cosmonaut class, and on Soyuz 4 he would ride alone into orbit, but would be joined by the three-man crew of Soyuz 5—two of the men would spacewalk over to his craft and return to Earth with him. Had this daring and intensely risky mission been attempted, as intended, two years earlier, it would have cleared a major hurdle in the Soviet assault on the Moon, but by the end of 1968 America staged a circumlunar mission and the joint flight of Soyuz 4/5 looked to the rest of the world like a stunt and a mere shadow of what it might have been.
In fact, Shatalov and the Soyuz 5 crew of Boris Volynov, Alexei Yeliseyev, and Yevgeni Khrunov had barely concluded their final exams when, on Christmas Eve, they received the grim news that Apollo 8 had entered orbit around the Moon. Working until late that night, for Shatalov the pot boiled over when the cosmonauts’ commander, General Nikolai Kamanin, told them that a “recommendation” had been received from Soviet senior leadership for Soyuz 4/5 to dock automatically and not manually. The four cosmonauts objected, arguing that they had the piloting skills necessary and ought to be permitted to execute a manual docking. At length, Shatalov exploded: “Here we are, debating this for the tenth time,” he is said to have raged, “whilst the Americans are orbiting the Moon!”
The question of whether to give cosmonauts active control of their ships had been hotly disputed since the early days of the Soviet space program. Kamanin frequently locked horns with Chief Designer Sergei Korolev over the issue and his memoirs—preserved in a series of diary entries, first published in 1995—revealed a tough, bitter military man who blamed his country’s loss of the Moon race on Soviet engineers’ unwillingness to yield control of a spacecraft to its crew.
Automation, to be fair, was a key operating principle. Under the cover names of Cosmos 186 and 188, a pair of unmanned Soyuz spacecraft performed a rendezvous and docking exercise in October 1967. Although they did not achieve a “hard” link-up—there remained a 3.3-inch gap between them, which prohibited full electrical connections—the mission showed that the Soviets had grasped rendezvous and docking with exciting possibilities for the future. Unfortunately, these flights did not end well. Cosmos 186 suffered a failure of its solar-stellar sensor, which altered its descent trajectory into a purely ballistic fall from orbit. It landed hard, but in one piece, on Soviet soil. Cosmos 188, on the other hand, re-entered the atmosphere at too steep an angle; so steep, in fact, that its self-destruct package had to be remotely triggered, spraying debris close to the Soviet-Mongolian border.
Success finally came the following April, when two more Soyuz—this time under the cover names of Cosmos 212 and 213—rendezvoused automatically and successfully “hard” docked. In the eyes of many cosmonauts and engineers, this cleared the way for a rendezvous, docking, and spacewalking flight later in 1968, involving Georgi Beregovoi aboard the “active” Soyuz 2 and Volynov, Yeliseyev, and Khrunov aboard the “passive” Soyuz 3. Sadly, it was not to be.
Trials of the spacecraft’s backup parachute were not deemed good enough to assign human pilots, and it was considered likely to rip during deployment with a crew of three and a total weight of up to 2,800 pounds. Vasili Mishin, who assumed Korolev’s mantle as Chief Designer in May 1966, proposed reducing the Soyuz 3 crew to two men to circumvent this risk and postponing the risky spacewalk to a later mission. Others, including Mstislav Keldysh, head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, were even more cautious, refusing to endorse any manned flights until another automated test had been successfully performed. Their reluctance was understandable. The previous year, Soyuz 1 had been lost and its pilot, Vladimir Komarov, killed when both the primary and backup parachutes failed.
By the end of May 1968, a compromise was suggested by Mishin: two Soyuz would dock in orbit, one of them unmanned, the other carrying a single cosmonaut. Assuming the success of that flight, the next crews would attempt the transfer mission, perhaps as early as September. Dmitri Ustinov, de facto head of all Soviet missile and space projects during this period, demanded a wholly automated flight. This would slip the intended August date for the manned mission until October at the earliest. On 10 June, the Soyuz State Commission convened and decided to launch the automated flight in July, followed by the joint mission with Beregovoi in September and the docking and spacewalk in November-December.
To this, Ustinov added a proviso that the spacewalk should transfer not one, but two cosmonauts. His request was borne out by Boris Volynov, whose work in a training version of the bulky space suit had revealed a major obstacle: a single spacewalker risked getting stuck in the hatchway between the Soyuz descent and orbital modules. Moreover, if he then experienced difficulties getting outside, there would be no one to help him. The commander, in the sealed-off descent module, would be unable to assist, making a pair of spacewalkers—Yeliseyev and Khrunov, capable of supporting each other—the only safe and practical option.
For a time, it had been thought prudent to adopt a so-called “2+2″ profile, whereby only one of the spacewalkers would actually perform the external transfer and both missions would return to Earth with crews of two. This neatly avoided the risk of bringing a Soyuz back to Earth with three men and a potentially dangerous parachute situation. By the end of September 1968, however, it seemed that the parachute woes had been resolved and the original plan for both Yeliseyev and Khrunov to spacewalk over to the other craft was reinstated.
In the meantime, Cosmos 238 was launched late in August and apparently conducted at least one major manoeuvre before touching down after a near-flawless four-day flight. Finally, on 25 October, the unmanned Soyuz 2 was launched, followed by Beregovoi aboard Soyuz 3 the next day. During his mission, the cosmonaut managed to rendezvous with his automated target, but did not physically dock with it; a peculiarity which perplexed Western observers for many years. The Soviets explained that on their first manned flight after the Soyuz 1 disaster, they did not want to subject Beregovoi to any undue risk. However, in a 2002 interview, quoted by Rex Hall and Dave Shayler in their book Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft, cosmonaut and spacecraft designer Konstantin Feoktistov accused Beregovoi of committing “the grossest error” by failing to notice that Soyuz 2’s orientation was mismatched with that of his own craft. This caused Soyuz 3 to “bank” 180 degrees relative to the target, despite the cosmonaut’s best efforts to counter it.
Suspicion that the Igla rendezvous device might have been to blame was vigorously denied by its designer, Armen Mnatsakanyan, and Feoktistov agreed that it was simply a classic case of pilot error. Beregovoi’s failure to notice the orientation mismatch with Soyuz 2 caused him to waste “all the fuel intended for the ship docking” and forced managers to cancel the remainder of the rendezvous. Years later, in his book Challenge to Apollo, historian Asif Siddiqi postulated that if the cosmonaut had recognised the problem and managed to stabilise Soyuz 3 along a direct axis to the target, he might still have achieved a successful docking.
Lessons needed to be learned before the docking between Soyuz 4/5. Indeed, it was decided that when Shatalov guided his craft to link up with that of Volynov, Yeliseyev, and Khrunov, he would do so a full 48 hours after launch, to allow him time to fully adapt to the strange “microgravity” environment of space. He would also complete his docking during orbital daylight and within range of Soviet ground stations. Furthermore, this plan gave the Soyuz 5 crew, upon whose shoulders lay the burden of the spacewalk, a day to acclimatise themselves.
During the docking procedure, Shatalov would rely heavily upon the Igla. This system would later be used to enable a docking between Soyuz and the first Salyut orbital station. Broadly, its goal was to control the relative motion and attitude of two vehicles, the “passive” of which carried a radio beacon for use as a homing aid by its “active” counterpart. Firstly, the passive craft (Soyuz 5 in this case) would transmit a continuous-wave beam signal, which the active craft (Soyuz 4) would use to orientate itself to acquire its “target,” in a similar manner to the Cosmos 186 and 188 rendezvous. Next, Soyuz 4 would start to transmit an “interrogation” signal to Soyuz 5 through its narrow beam antenna. Finally, Soyuz 5 would switch off its continuous-wave beacon and retransmit the interrogation signals through its own narrow beam antenna to establish a secure “lock” between the pair.
Bearing as he did the unenviable reputation of becoming the Soviet Union’s 13th spacefarer, Shatalov could perhaps have anticipated a run of bad luck during the days preceding his mission. Matters were not aided by the fact that his home telephone number ended in “13″ and the launch itself was set for 1:00 pm Moscow Time—13:00 hours—on 13 January, which also happened to be a Monday, traditionally regarded by the Russians as a most difficult day…
As it happened, Shatalov’s only real bad luck transpired shortly after clambering into Soyuz 4 on the morning of 13 January, when he fell victim to the first launch scrub in Soviet space history. Despite temperatures of -24°C and gusting winds, the fuelling of the R-7 rocket proceeded normally and the cosmonaut settled into the spacecraft and began running through his pre-launch system checks. Minor irritations came in the form of voice communication dropouts whenever Soyuz 4’s television camera was in use, prompting it to be switched off. Then, with nine minutes to go, a problem was detected within the R-7’s gyroscopes, apparently related to the ambient temperature and humidity.
By the time this problem was resolved, the launch time had slipped to mid-afternoon and Shatalov had been lying on his back for over two hours. Moreover, with a mission whose planned duration was almost exactly three days, to launch at this time of the day would produce a landing in the half-light of a gloomy midwinter’s afternoon on the 16th. This was considered far from ideal on such a complex flight. Ultimately, mission rules decided the outcome: fuel temperatures could not fall below -2°C at night, as otherwise the loss of specific impulse would reduce the R-7’s thrust by more than 5 percent. The managers therefore opted to postpone the launch.
Shatalov concealed his disappointment well, and as he was extracted from his couch he quipped that he had just set a new record for the world’s shortest space flight and the very first to return to its exact point of liftoff! Years later, he admitted to an interviewer that, despite the run of thirteens, he was not an overly superstitious man. His quick wit, superstition, and disappointment aside, a number of potentially serious challenges remained. Although Soyuz had been designed to touch down on solid ground and was capable of performing a water landing, unmanned experience had shown that it might not be totally waterproof and, indeed, could sink. The chances of either Soyuz 4 or 5 splashing down somewhere in the ice-covered Aral Sea were estimated at only 0.003 percent, but, erring on the side of caution, recovery forces despatched rescue helicopters and a trio of B-12 seaplanes in readiness for such an eventuality.
In addition, the debate continued about how to conduct the rendezvous, with Dmitri Ustinov and Space Minister Sergei Afanasyev pressing Vasili Mishin for an automated flight profile. Both were aware of how flawlessly this had been executed by Cosmos 186/188 and 212/213, and remained mindful of Georgi Beregovoi’s difficulties the previous October. The matter was decided the day before launch by Mishin, who, although he normally favoured automated systems, ruled in favour of the cosmonauts. Nevertheless, on the evening before launch, Nikolai Kamanin took Shatalov aside and told him that if he encountered difficulties then he should revert immediately to the automatic systems.
Shatalov’s mission finally got underway at 10:30 am Moscow Time on 14 January with a perfect launch and insertion into orbit. For a time it had looked as if another scrub was on the cards, when a fault was detected in the R-7 which could normally only be resolved by lowering the rocket into a horizontal position. According to Hall and Shayler, a young pad technician saved the day by stripping off most of his clothes and, in freezing temperatures, squeezing through a narrow hatch into the rocket’s bowels to correct the problem.
For Shatalov, the experience of rocket launch, the weightlessness of space, and the view of Earth was profound. “When we look into the sky,” he explained later, “it seems to us to be endless. We breathe without thinking about it, as is natural … and then you sit in a spacecraft, you tear away from Earth, and within ten minutes you have been carried straight through the layer of air and beyond there is nothing. The ‘boundless’ blue sky, the ocean which gives us breath and protects us from endless black … is but an infinitesimally thin film.” Shatalov was not the first spacefarer to remark upon the fragility of the world from which he came. Weightlessness, he recounted at the post-flight press conference at Moscow State University, “took me about three to four hours to master.”
Back on Earth, watching the launch from Baikonur were the Soyuz 5 trio of cosmonauts, who undoubtedly wished that they could be in his place. Their turn would come the very next morning, 15 January, when they were destined to blast off and adopt a passive role as Shatalov performed the world’s first-ever link-up between two manned spacecraft.
A little more than six hours after launch, at 4:35 pm, Shatalov adjusted Soyuz 4’s orbit, showed television viewers his spacious descent module with two (tellingly) empty “extra” seats, then retired into the orbital module for his first night’s sleep in space. The next morning, at 3:00 am, an An-12 aircraft from Moscow touched down at Baikonur with an unusual cargo: ten newspapers and a batch of letters to be delivered to Shatalov by the Soyuz 5 crew in the world’s first space mail service. It was yet another effort by the Soviets to generate a space spectacular. Several hours later, the crew took their places in the spacecraft, with Volynov assuming the center seat, flanked by flight engineer Yeliseyev and research engineer Khrunov.
Shortly after 9:30 am, with barely 25 minutes to go, a piece of electrical equipment failed and, despite the fully-fuelled state of the R-7 booster, was replaced by Engineer-Captain Viktor Alyeshin. He also noticed that the crew access hatch in the aerodynamic shroud was secured by only three bolts, instead of the required four. Nonetheless, at 10:04 am, Soyuz 5 roared aloft and a few minutes later was precisely inserted into orbit, trailing Shatalov by some 750 miles. Although Volynov executed a thruster firing later that day to further refine his orbital parameters, his craft would remain essentially passive during the rendezvous. In addition to the joint program with Soyuz 4, the crew had their own scientific agenda: Yeliseyev would be “concerned with geological/geographical phenomena” and Khrunov would be “occupied with medical and ionospheric radio-propagation experiments,” according to Flight International. It was also revealed that Khrunov would play a key role in the final stages of the rendezvous, by operating the ship’s on-board sextant.
However, according to Rex Hall and Dave Shayler, there had already been some discussion on the ground about the precise order in which to launch the two missions. The cosmonauts, it seemed, had wanted to fly the passive spacecraft ahead of the active one, as this would provide Yeliseyev and Khrunov additional time to adapt to the weightless environment before their spacewalk. Moreover, Georgi Beregovoi had followed—not preceded—his target into orbit. In true Soviet fashion, with its ridiculous emphasis on revealing absolutely nothing except successes, there was another advantage. If the second launch was cancelled, the “joint” nature of the mission could be disguised from the outside world by saying that a three-man flight with a spacewalk was a logical step. In the end, Nikolai Kamanin overruled his cosmonauts, on the grounds that it would be too complicated to change the launch plans at such short notice.
By mid-morning on the 15th, Shatalov, Volynov, Yeliseyev, and Khrunov were in orbit. As radio chatter crackled between the two Soyuz and ground control, their callsigns were revealed as “Amur” for Shatalov and “Baikal” for Volynov’s crew. The spacecraft apparently established mutual radio contact shortly after Soyuz 5 reached space. At 8:06 am on 16 January, Shatalov made his final orbital adjustment in preparation for the rendezvous. At that point, he was partway through his 34th orbit and Volynov, Yeliseyev, and Khrunov were on their 18th circuit of the globe. At 10:37 am, high above the South Pacific, Shatalov switched on his Igla device to begin the automated “ballet,” which ended over Africa at 11:05 am when the separation between the two craft was just 130 feet.
Speaking after the mission, he recalled that his most important aids during this critical period were his instruments and his own eyes. At 130 feet, he said, “Boris Volynov and I performed several manoeuvres, in the course of which we changed the relative position of the spacecraft … Further approach and docking were performed within the zone of direct TV contact with the ground stations. To avoid sharp contact with each other, the relative speed of approach was reduced to several centimetres per second.” Contact itself came at 11:20 am, as Soyuz 4 and 5 flew above the Yevpatoria control center in the Crimea. The crews may have been intently focused on their instruments, but for a few seconds after docking it would seem that one of the Soyuz 5 cosmonauts was thinking of something quite different. As Soyuz 4’s docking probe penetrated their own craft’s receptacle, one of the men—some sources say Volynov, others Khrunov—could not help but visualise the sexual connotations of the now-linked ships. Without checking himself, over the radio link and within clear earshot of ground controllers, he blurted out: “We’ve been raped! We’ve been raped!”
It was an unfortunate choice of words, reflecting, perhaps, the over-excitement of a young rookie, but the outstanding success of the docking—a manual docking, at that, with Shatalov firmly in control—was eagerly proclaimed by the state-run Tass news agency. It was the first “new” undertaking in orbit since the spacewalk by Alexei Leonov, and it sent a clear message to the West that Russia was back in the game. “There was a mutual mechanical coupling of the ships … and their electrical circuits were connected,” Tass said. “The world’s first experimental cosmic station with four compartments for the crew was assembled and began functioning.”
A few days later, Time magazine wondered about future Soviet space plans: would this “four-compartment version,” it asked, lead next to “a roomy orbiting laboratory”? Many observers, though, had a more fundamental question. As Flight International pointed out on 23 January: “It is not clear whether astronauts can transfer from one vehicle to another through a tunnel joining the two vehicles.” This was the crux of the debate over whether Soyuz 4/5 represented a “true” space station. Left unsaid by Tass was the reality that those “four rooms”—the two orbital modules and two descent modules, though electrically and mechanically mated—did not permit internal transfer from one spacecraft to the other. Nevertheless, as would shortly be demonstrated by Yeliseyev and Khrunov, Soyuz 4 and 5 were by no means “inaccessible” to one another.
The space suits to be worn by the two men during their daring ship-to-ship transfer were quite different from the one worn by Alexei Leonov during his spacewalk in March 1965. On that occasion, the “Berkut” (“Golden Eagle”) ensemble had proven stiff and had ballooned dangerously as Leonov tried to re-enter the airlock, and by the time he returned inside the Voskhod 2 cabin he was drenched in sweat, breathing hard, and exhausted. By contrast, the “Yastreb” (“Hawk”) suits of Yeliseyev and Khrunov were more flexible, benefitting from a complex array of lines and pulleys for dexterity, and their life-support and environmental control units could be worn on either their chests or shins to help them get through the small hatch of the Soyuz orbital module.
The size of this hatch, in fact, had almost proven a showstopper a few years earlier. In July 1966, Yastreb’s designer, Gai Severin—the Soviet Union’s foremost manufacturer of attire and ejection seats for both MiG fighter pilots and the early cosmonauts—advised Nikolai Kamanin that the OKB-1 design bureau, now headed by Vasili Mishin, had restricted the diameter of the orbital module’s hatch at just 26 inches. A fully suited cosmonaut with his bulky life-support gear, Severin pointed out, needed the opening to be at least 27.5 inches wide. Simulations on the ground and in conditions of temporary weightlessness aboard a modified Tu-104 aircraft underlined the problem: when fully pressurized, the suit swelled to 25.5 inches, just a little less than the diameter of the hatch itself, and the men simply could not get through the hatch without twisting and contorting their bodies in remarkable feats of gymnastics. Kamanin deemed the situation wholly unacceptable. At length, Mishin conceded: although the first few Soyuz spacecraft had already been built, subsequent orbital modules would have a 28-inch hatch.
Yevgeni Khrunov was at the centre of these troubles. Chosen in 1960 as one of the original cosmonauts, his career appeared to have been leading inexorably toward a spacewalk. Initially assigned to the Voskhod 2 training group, he supported both Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov, even donning his space suit with them on launch morning in March 1965. By the end of the following year, despite Mishin’s favoritism of civilian engineers—of whom Yeliseyev was one—Khrunov was considered by far the best-qualified candidate for the Soyuz-to-Soyuz spacewalk. He narrowly missed the chance to perform it in April 1967, when Vladimir Komarov’s mission went tragically wrong, but remained the leading contender and continued training in the expectation of eventually flying. Certainly his love of physical exercise proved exceptionally useful: during training runs in the Tu-104 and in the vacuum chamber, it was found that exertion levels in the Yastreb were in the order of 600-900 calories per hour.
It was with this experience and more than two years of preparation under their belts that, shortly after midday Moscow Time on 16 January 1969, Yeliseyev and Khrunov finished donning their space suits and began the greatest engineering challenge—and the biggest thrill—of their lives. Its success would only partially mask the inherent risk involved in space exploration; a risk which would come within a whisker of claiming one of the cosmonauts’ lives during re-entry.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.