To Yevgeni Khrunov, the first view of Earth was like a jewel of the most intense blue, flecked by white cloud, glimmering in the ethereal blackness of space. The feeling, he said later, was like those final euphoric seconds before embarking on a parachute jump or the sensation felt by an adrenaline-charged athlete about to perform the stunt of a lifetime.
With the exception that the exercise on Soyuz 4/5 in January 1969 was carried out far higher and in a much more hazardous environment, the parallels drawn by Khrunov were apt: just like a parachutist or an athlete, the spacewalk required a considerable amount of self-awareness and demanded every ounce of energy and stamina that he and Alexei Yeliseyev could muster. Although Boris Volynov was on hand to assist them for a while—checking their life-support and communications gear and helping them to secure their gloves—the time inevitably came for him to retire to his couch in Soyuz 5’s descent module, seal the hatch, and depressurize the orbital module. With all this preparation in mind, it is quite remarkable that Khrunov, the first man outside, swung open the hatch and floated into the void at around 12:43 pm Moscow Time, scarcely an hour after the docking with fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov in Soyuz 4.The spacewalkers’ departure was not, however, entirely untroubled. One of Khrunov’s oxygen hoses became entangled and he accidentally closed the tumbler of the suit’s ventilator. Although he succeeded in freeing it and solved the problem, the need to help his partner distracted Yeliseyev, who forgot to install a movie camera outside the hatch. As a result, the world was denied film of the spacewalk and had to make do with a poor-quality video transmission.
Unsurprisingly, no evidence of any of these problems appeared in either cosmonaut’s official recollections. In fact, Yeliseyev’s failure to set up the movie camera was “saved,” it seems, by Khrunov, who assembled a still camera inside Soyuz 4’s orbital module. It was this which yielded the very few grainy images from the joint mission. Still, both men would tell a press conference at Moscow State University on 24 January that their Yastreb space suits had performed well; the ventilators and heat exchanges worked effectively and they experienced no “fogging” of their visors from condensation. Khrunov recounted that the most efficient form of locomotion was a hand-over-hand progression using rails attached to both spacecraft. “Moving along the rails in this way,” he added, “I approached the camera. Then, gripping the rail with one hand, I removed the camera with the other from the bracket and disconnected it from the on-board electric mains. Then, ‘walking on hands’ in the same manner, I moved along the outer surface of the assembled space station and entered the compartment of Soyuz 4.”
Khrunov’s misleading reference to the combination as a “space station” was endorsed by Yeliseyev, who went further by stressing that “the choice of the method of transfer, through open space rather than by means of a tunnel, was not an accidental one.” Not everyone in the Western world was fooled. Time magazine pondered the Soviets’ space-station ambitions, but American astronaut Deke Slayton, for one, remained sceptical. In his autobiography, Deke, co-authored with Michael Cassutt, Slayton pointed out that the space station comparison was “sort of a stretch” and speculated that the Soviets were simply trying to upstage Apollo 9, an American rendezvous, docking, and crew-transfer flight, scheduled for launch several weeks later. On the Apollo mission, however, crew members were to transfer internally between their two spacecraft.
Yet Khrunov and Yeliseyev’s spacewalk was an impressive feat. By 1:30 pm, both men were inside Soyuz 4’s orbital module—the hatch of which had been automatically cranked open by Shatalov—and assumed their new places in the descent module. At 3:55 pm, four hours and 35 minutes after docking, the two spacecraft separated and Volynov fired his thrusters to pull away. Next morning, Shatalov initiated re-entry and he, Yeliseyev, and Khrunov descended through a wintry blizzard and thumped onto the snowy Kazakh steppe at 9:53 am, to the southwest of the coal-mining city of Karaganda. Shatalov, whose performance during the rendezvous and docking was later described as exemplary, became the first cosmonaut to maintain a running commentary during the ballistic fall to Earth, using a VHF antenna embedded in the hatch of the descent module.
For all the doubts over the validity of the “space station” claims, Soyuz 4/5 became the first manned flight to exchange crewmembers in orbit. At the instant of touchdown, Shatalov had spent a little less than three days in space, whilst Yeliseyev and Khrunov concluded missions of almost 48 hours apiece. Despite landing in a blizzard, with 24-30 inches of snow on the ground and temperatures of -37°C, all three men were safe and were picked up by helicopter within minutes. However, the perils of their landing would pale in comparison to the trauma suffered by Boris Volynov during his return to Earth early the next day.
In fact, so harrowing was the tale of Volynov’s return—and so close was his brush with death—that it would be almost three decades before the West heard anything about it. Even those closest to the Soviet space program, including Chief Designer Vasili Mishin, were caught totally unaware as the prospect of a re-entry disaster of Columbia-like proportions unfolded before their eyes. The euphoria surrounding the safe landing of Soyuz 4 had given way to a mistaken sense that Volynov’s return to Earth would be a walk in the park. Shortly after Mishin arrived in the Yevpatoria control room, in the Crimea, at around 8:00 am on 18 January 1969, apparently still hungover from the previous night’s festivities, he and everyone else was brought face to face with a harsh reality: that space flight was by no means routine.
The main worry that morning was anti-cyclonic conditions at the landing site, coupled with frigid temperatures hovering at close to -35°C. The plan called for Volynov to manually orient Soyuz 5 for retrofire and make his landing at 9:30 am Moscow Time. After rehearsing the steps for this procedure during his final orbit, he reported he could not do it within the allotted nine minutes. Nevertheless, he was told to try. Commands were also provided for a second automatic retrofire, in the event that the manual effort failed. The intended retrofire time came at 8:48 am, but, eight minutes later, Volynov reported that he had been unable to complete the orientation manually and controllers prepared to uplink the commands for an automatic burn on the next orbit. It would seem that weather conditions on the ground also contributed to the delay.
Re-entry finally got underway high above the Gulf of Guinea at 10:26 am, but, wrote Rex Hall and Dave Shayler in their book, Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft, it soon became alarmingly clear “that the spacecraft was … violently tumbling.” Having already lost Vladimir Komarov during a bungled return to Earth two years earlier, it was obvious to the Yevpatoria staff that another cosmonaut might very soon fall victim to the hazards of space flight. What was not known at the time, however, was that as re-entry began Soyuz 5’s instrument module was still securely attached to its descent module.
For Volynov, the implications of this were potentially catastrophic.
Under normal circumstances, six seconds after retrofire, a series of pyrotechnics should have sheared the two apart, enabling the bell-shaped descent module to adopt its correct re-entry orientation, with the heavily protected base facing into the direction of travel to shield Volynov from the brunt of 5,000°C frictional heat. For this reason, the base was coated with a six-inch thickness of ablative material, half of which was designed to char, melt, and peel away during re-entry, safeguarding the descent module from the heat flux. Unfortunately, the final half-hour of Soyuz 5 was far from normal.
With the instrument module still in place, the base’s thermal shield was covered, unable to fulfil its purpose, and, worse still, the combined spacecraft was forced to adopt the most aerodynamically stable orientation—with the “dome” of the heavy descent module and its thin hatch facing into the direction of travel and about to feel the full force of a searing hypersonic re-entry. Unlike the base, the top of the descent module was coated with just an inch of ablator. Since the heat of re-entry was predicted to char away at least three times as much off the base, a re-entry in this attitude would likely end in catastrophe.
At 10:32 am, Stockholm radio analyst Sven Grahn and his colleague Chris Wood, based in Fiji, noted that shortwave communications signals from Soyuz 5 had abruptly stopped; an instant “normally assumed to be the time of separation of the instrument module, and in all probability it was the time when the separation pyros fired.” On his website, http://www.svengrahn.pp.se, Grahn noted that the electrical connections had separated between the orbital and instrument modules … but not their mechanical connections. Aboard Soyuz 5, Volynov heard the pyrotechnics fire, but was stunned when he glanced through his window to see the solar panels and whip antennas of the still-attached instrument module. According to Grahn, the cosmonaut reported what he saw “through some coded radio channel” to ground controllers. This was probably done on shortwave, since he was out of VHF range with the Soviet Union at the time.
When they realised what had happened—or, more accurately, what had not happened—several flight controllers buried their faces in their hands. One officer removed his cap, dropped three rubles into it and passed it along the line; within minutes, it had filled with coins for Volynov’s young family. The cosmonaut was effectively plummeting back to Earth, nose-first, with the least-protected section of his craft exposed to the greatest thermal stress. Moreover, he was exposed to G forces in excess of nine times their normal terrestrial load. Against such overwhelming odds, it seemed that Boris Volynov’s fate was sealed.
Not until 1996, almost three decades after the event, was he finally able to speak publicly about what happened during that terrifying final half-hour. Rather than being pushed back into his couch, as would be expected in a normal, base-first re-entry, Volynov was “pulled” outward against his harnesses. Yet he still managed to repeat “no panic, no panic” over and over. In what he assumed would be the final minutes of his life, he continued to report his status into an on-board voice recorder and even tore the last few pages from his rendezvous notebook, jamming them into his pockets, in the vain hope that they might somehow escape incineration.
From his couch, he could only watch helplessly as tongues of flame licked at the descent module’s windows and washed over the cabin. The thin hatch, directly in front of his eyes, visibly bulged inwards under the tremendous heat and pressure. All of Soyuz 5’s hydrogen peroxide propellant had been expended shortly after the onset of re-entry, when the automated systems struggled fruitlessly to orient the descent module. Gradually, the intense heat—a heat which Volynov, clad only in a light flight garment, rather than a pressurized suit, could physically feel—began to melt the gaskets which sealed the hatch and the cabin started to fill with noxious fumes. He clearly heard a roar as the propellant tanks in the instrument module exploded, together with a prolonged and disturbing grinding sound as the stresses of deceleration took their toll on the unusual configuration.
“Through it all,” wrote Asif Siddiqi in Challenge to Apollo, “there were terrifying moments. Once, there was a sharp clap, indicating that the propellant tanks … had blown apart with such force that the crew hatch was forced inwards and then upwards like the bottom of a tin can … ”
At length, thankfully, the struts holding the instrument module severed, and the two modules separated and the descent module’s offset center of mass caused it to assume a base-first orientation. It tumbled violently as it fell ballistic. The descent ended at 11:08 am with a touchdown close to Orenburg, hundreds of miles off-target, in the snowy Ural Mountains.
Despite having endured and survived one of the space program’s most terrifying re-entries, the cosmonaut’s ordeal was not over. Heat damage and the tumbling had caused Soyuz 5’s parachute lines to entangle and, as a result, their canopies only partially inflated. Moreover, one of the solid-fuelled soft-landing rockets in the module’s base failed to fire, resulting in a particularly hard touchdown—so hard, in fact, that Volynov was torn from his couch and thrown across the cabin, breaking several teeth. As the noise and vibration of the last half-hour was replaced by the absolute silence, stillness, and bitter cold of a late winter’s morning in the Urals, he could reflect on how lucky he was to be alive.
The temperature outside was close to -40°C and the superheated metallic surfaces of the spacecraft now hissed in the snow. Volynov knew that he was far from his planned landing site and would have to wait several hours for rescue. On the other hand, spending hours in Soyuz 5 in sub-zero conditions would mean certain death. He clambered outside and, spitting blood and bits of teeth into the snow as he went, set off in the direction of a distant column of smoke until he reached a peasant’s cottage, where he took refuge, knowing that the rescue party would find the spacecraft and then follow the “tracks” of his bootprints and blood.
Through a mouthful of broken teeth, the traumatised Volynov had just four words for them: “Is my hair gray?”
This is part of a series of History articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on STS-61C, the “Mission Impossible” flight of Space Shuttle Columbia, a few weeks before the Challenger tragedy … a mission which itself came close to disaster.