‘The Main Road’: The World’s First Space Station (Part 1)

Artist's concept of Soyuz 10 approaching the Salyut 1/DOS space station in April 1971. Image Credit: Roscosmos
Artist’s concept of Soyuz 10 approaching the Salyut 1/DOS space station in April 1971. Image Credit: Roscosmos

When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon in July 1969, the people of the Soviet Union did not see the live coverage of his historic steps. It was a decision later condemned by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. It was “a most stupid and short-sighted political decision,” he wrote in his memoir, Two Sides of the Moon, “stemming from both pride and envy.” Back then, it was suspected in the West, but never admitted by Russia, that ambitious plans to land a Soviet citizen on the Moon were advanced, but never realized. And in the wake of Apollo 11, the question for the Soviet Union was how to possibly respond to such an enormous U.S. success. The response, cleverly cloaked in rhetoric, was to build and launch the world’s first space station.

Behind closed doors, there were three options: a manned Mars mission, “advanced” lunar landings, and an Earth-orbiting space station. The reality that the Soviets could not successfully bring to operational status a rocket with only 70 percent of the Saturn V’s payload capacity rendered the first two options largely moot, and these were never openly discussed with the world. In fact, wrote historian Asif Siddiqi in his seminal work, Challenge to Apollo, the fact that plans for a Mars mission existed at all “is testament to the often unrealistic ambitions of both space industry officials and the chief designers.” The concept of a space station, on the other hand, and the steadily growing maturity of Russia’s Soyuz manned spacecraft and its ability to rendezvous and dock with other vehicles in orbit, offered a more practical alternative.

In the face of a humiliating public relations disaster in the summer of 1969, the Soviets turned their own weakness to their advantage: now America could be presented as the imperialist superpower in search of the glory and the spectaculars. The more beautiful socialist state, on the other hand, could now depict itself as pursuing peaceful, scientific goals closer to Earth. It was a cynical and ironic depiction, considering the shameful Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year and the reality that three of their early space stations would be exclusively military in nature.

Neil Armstrong's historic achievement of becoming the first man to set foot on the Moon inspired the Soviets to accelerate their space station plans in response. Photo Credit: NASA
Neil Armstrong’s historic achievement of becoming the first man to set foot on the Moon inspired the Soviets to accelerate their space station plans in response. Photo Credit: NASA

In August 1969, a few weeks after the Apollo 11 lunar landing, a group of designers proposed that the propellant tank of a Soyuz rocket could be converted into a makeshift space station. At this stage, of course, something was needed to respond to the American success, and plans for a military space station called “Almaz” (“Diamond”) were some way from becoming a reality. By mid-October, the effort was set in motion to equip the “core” of an Almaz station with Soyuz solar panels, guidance, and controls, and launch it into orbit before America’s Skylab, possibly in early 1971.

This created the illusion that the Soviets were following a gradual “grand plan” for mastering near-Earth space, and it was reinforced by Leonid Brezhnev’s speech at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on 22 October 1969. “Our country has an extensive space programme,” he began, “drawn up for many years. We are going our own way: we are moving consistently and purposefully. Soviet cosmonautics is solving problems of increasing complexity. Our way to the conquest of space is the way of solving vital, fundamental tasks—basic problems of science and technology. Our science has approached the creation of long-term orbital stations and laboratories as the decisive means to an extensive conquest of space. Soviet science regards the creation of orbital stations with changeable crews as the main road for man into space.”

It was clear from this address, wrote Asif Siddiqi, that Brezhnev was implying that the Americans were chasing “an empty, politically motivated enterprise, [whereas] Soviet cosmonauts were doing their all for the advancement of science and ultimately for the benefit of humankind.” Sending men to the Moon was expensive in comparison to the automated orbiters and landers being regularly dispatched by the Soviets. It almost seemed that a sort of Five-Year Plan was being formalized and, far from being a politically inspired enterprise, it would be seen as being ordered, organized, properly financed, and executed with precision; the perfect cover, if ever it were needed, for the hastily-cobbled-together reality. In a major sense, this dramatic turnaround from the humiliation of two failed N-1 launches and the crushing disappointment of America’s landing on the Moon was a masterstroke.

Other high-profile personalities in the Soviet space effort now came to the fore to reinforce Brezhnev’s pronouncement. Mstislav Keldysh, head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, told Swedish journalists on 24 October that “we no longer have any scheduled plans for manned lunar flights.” Many observers in the West fell for it. However, in the Soviet Union, feelings were quite different. One Moscow journalist noted with sarcasm in 1990 that Brezhnev’s speech was little more than a desperate bid to “come up with an alternative space project to save face, as well as the badly tarnished myth of Soviet superiority in space … Designers, cosmonauts, and thousands of other people probably laughed up their sleeves, knowing full well that the General Secretary was lying.”

Additionally, the CIA suspected that the “sudden” advancement of the space station concept into Soviet strategic thinking was a direct consequence of their loss of the Moon race to Apollo. “The implication,” read an intelligence report issued in January 1970 and declassified in 1998, “in light of public statements like those of Brezhnev and Keldysh … is that the Soviets have downgraded their manned lunar landing program and have placed new emphasis on space stations … One reason for the public stress on space stations and de-emphasis of manned lunar landings may be the success of the U.S. Apollo program … ” In conclusion, the report suggested that the failings of the N-1 rocket, whose disastrous July 1969 launch had been clearly photographed by a Corona spy satellite, profoundly shifted the Soviet direction in space towards an orbital station, which offered “potential short-run economic benefits … in contrast to the longer-run potential gains from exploration of the Moon … ”

Grainy image from the departing Soyuz 11 mission in June 1971, showing Salyut 1. This was one of the last close-up views of the world's first space station. Photo Credit: Roscosmos
Grainy image from the departing Soyuz 11 mission in June 1971, showing Salyut 1. This was one of the last close-up views of the world’s first space station. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

On 9 February 1970, Decree No. 105-41 was issued by the Central Committee and the Council of Ministers. Among its directives: all pertinent documentation and all existing hardware, including manufactured Almaz station cores, should be transferred to the new Long-Duration Orbital Station (DOS) program. The station would be 46 feet long and 15 feet wide, with a mass of around 40,000 pounds. With ten times as much living space as Soyuz, DOS-1 could support up to three cosmonauts for several weeks.

In physical appearance, DOS-1 comprised three main segments: a transfer compartment, a working area, and an aggregate section. The first was located at the forward end of the station and was fitted with a passive docking “node” for receiving Soyuz. It contained life-support and thermoregulation equipment, together with the Orion ultraviolet telescope, cameras, and biological instruments. It also included a small side-hatch, through which cosmonauts could perform spacewalks (although no space suits were assigned to the first station). A pair of large solar panels were mounted onto the transfer compartment’s exterior. Next came the work area, which consisted of two cylinders, and featured a control panel and facilities for working and eating, heating food, and recreation. Finally, at the rear of DOS-1 was the aggregate section, which was not accessible to the crew. It contained a main engine and another pair of solar panels. According to Asif Siddiqi, the overall impression was “bird-like.”

Shortly after the release of Decree No. 105-41, the first mutterings of exactly who might fly the early DOS-1 missions were made. One of the first names was veteran cosmonaut Alexei Yeliseyev, who had flown twice the previous year and had actual experience of rendezvous, docking, and spacewalking. Another was a rookie engineer named Nikolai Rukavishnikov. The situation now moved quickly. The first crew consisted of Yeliseyev, Rukavishnikov, and commander Vladimir Shatalov, who would undertake a record-breaking 30-day mission in DOS-1. (The Americans were not expected to be able to achieve such a feat on Skylab until at least 1972.) The second crew to occupy DOS-1 would comprise veteran cosmonauts Georgi Shonin and Valeri Kubasov, together with rookie Pyotr Kolodin, and they would push the envelope further by attempting 45 days in orbit. The third and fourth crews—consisting of Boris Volynov, Konstantin Feoktistov, and Viktor Patsayev, then Yevgeni Khrunov, Vladislav Volkov, and Vitali Sevastyanov—would serve in a backup capacity for the Shatalov and Shonin crews, then fly to the second-generation DOS-2 station.

By May 1970, revised crews had been announced, with Shonin, Yeliseyev, and Rukavishnikov reshuffled to fly first, followed by Alexei Leonov, Valeri Kubasov, and Pyotr Kolodin. Backups to these two crews, and candidates for the DOS-2 station, would then be Vladimir Shatalov, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, and a new and relatively inexperienced line-up of Georgi Dobrovolski, Vitali Sevastyanov, and Anatoli Voronov. It was expected that Shonin’s Crew One would launch aboard Soyuz 10 about eight to ten days after DOS-1 had reached orbit, arrive at the station 24 hours later, and spend a month aboard. Twenty-five days after the return of Shonin’s crew, the Leonov team would blast off aboard Soyuz 11 and attempt a stay of 45 days.

However, the adverse reactions of the Soyuz 9 crew—which had flown for 18 days in June 1970, from which its cosmonauts returned in poor physical condition—prompted managers to recommend flights of no more than three weeks until a clearer perspective could be gained on how weightlessness affected the human body. Nevertheless, and further highlighting the Politburo’s real motivation for endorsing the station project, it was directed that DOS-1 had to be launched in time for the 24th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1971. Privately, Nikolai Kamanin, the commander of the cosmonaut corps, doubted that any such mission would be ready to launch before April or May.

By the autumn of 1970, all of the cosmonauts with the exception of Dobrovolski’s Crew Four were training intensely for their missions; the latter trio began formal classes in January of the following year. Much of what happened in the spring of 1971 to change the crew set-up for the first DOS missions surrounded Georgi Shonin. In the months after his first flight, Soyuz 6, in October 1969, Shonin became increasingly dependent on alcohol. In early February 1971, his drunkenness had caused him to miss an important training session. Vasili Mishin was furious and told Kamanin that Shonin would “never fly again in my spaceships!” Shonin was apologetic and implored Kamanin to retain command of Soyuz 10, but to no avail. So it was that Vladimir Shatalov, the most experienced military cosmonaut in terms of rendezvous and docking and the man pointed at the first DOS-1 mission right from the start, now re-entered the game in pole position. He would command Soyuz 10 in Shonin’s place.

Soyuz 10 crewmen (front to rear) Rukavishnikov, Shatalov and Yeliseyev were destined to become the first men to board an Earth-orbital space station. As tomorrow's article will reveal, their mission brought intense disappointment. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Soyuz 10 crewmen (front to rear) Rukavishnikov, Shatalov, and Yeliseyev were destined to become the first men to board an Earth-orbital space station. As tomorrow’s article will reveal, their mission brought intense disappointment. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Training, particularly in those final weeks in the spring of 1971, was feverish. In his autobiography, Alexei Leonov, whose own crew was untouched by the Shonin episode, related the enormous pressure of learning the intricacies of DOS-1. “Besides the intensive physical training,” he wrote, “I had to take technical drawings and detailed plans for the programme home to study at night. The strain was so great that my hands sometimes used to shake.”

Early medical opinion in the Soviet Union had been that weightlessness might actually prove beneficial, since it imposed less stress on the heart and other bodily organs, but this was drastically reassessed in the run up to the launch of DOS-1. It was now clear that the strange environment actually posed tremendous risks and had the potential to cause weakening of muscles, bones, and even the immune system over a prolonged period of time. With this in mind, continued Leonov, steps were taken to ensure that exercise equipment aboard DOS-1 was utilised frequently to maintain the strength of the cosmonauts’ muscles and bones. Increased emphasis was placed on biological and medical training, and all four crews received intensive instruction in how to perform anything from first aid to the extraction of teeth and how to administer and interpret electrocardiograms and encephalograms to taking blood samples from fingers and veins. This physically and mentally taxing work was on top of preparing for launch and re-entry, rendezvous and docking, and a range of other scientific experiments, including solar and astronomical observations. “We co-operated at astrophysical observatories with leading academics in the field,” wrote Leonov of their gruelling schedule. “After completing each course, we had to pass a series of exams.”

As the training entered its final stages, the launch of DOS-1 seemed to move further and further to the right. The original plan to launch the station on 5 February 1971 and despatch the Soyuz 10 crew on 15 February was quickly seen to be hopelessly optimistic; in fact, Kamanin had doubted this schedule for several months. The station’s environmental control system would not be ready in time, the spacecraft simulators were inadequate for the cosmonauts’ needs, and indecision even existed over which to launch first: DOS-1 or Soyuz 10! This proved an organizational nightmare, Kamanin wrote in his diary, when training the crews.

Delays in the production of the station hardware and the validation of its systems were simply unacceptable to the Soviet leadership. Against this backdrop, DOS-1 arrived at the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan on 1 February 1971 and completed its checkout a month later, with launch expected no earlier than 15 April. Vladimir Shatalov, Alexei Yeliseyev, and Nikolai Rukavishnikov would blast off in Soyuz 10 four days later and dock with the station. Many physicians and managers felt that spending a month aboard posed a grave health risk. In his diary, Kamanin noted that the Soyuz 9 cosmonauts had landed virtually in the laps of the doctors, but if they had been called on to make an emergency landing in the ocean or in the wild Siberian taiga they would have been in real trouble. For Kamanin, every extension past 20 days was a risk not only to the health of the crew, but also to their very lives.

And the hazardous and life-threatening reality of space exploration would become abundantly clear with the unlucky voyage of Soyuz 10 and, hard on its heels, the tragic tale of Soyuz 11.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.


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