‘Tense and Magnificent’: The World’s First Space Station (Part 2)


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

Two years after the United States landed the first men on the Moon, the Soviet Union was ready to stage its own spectacular—the launch of the world’s first Earth-orbiting space station—in response. As described in yesterday’s history article, the road to build it was fraught with difficulty, but in April 1971 it was expected that the Long-Duration Orbital Station (DOS-1) would support three Soyuz 10 cosmonauts for three weeks, longer than any previous crew. For such a historic venture, “DOS-1” was a hardly appropriate title; a name was acutely needed, although Chief Designer Vasili Mishin’s desire to call the new station “Zarya” (“Dawn”) was foiled by the fact that China had already claimed this for one of their secret programs. Aware of the fact that the station’s launch would almost coincide with the tenth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight, it was decided instead to call it “Salyut 1” as a “salute” to the world’s first man in space.

The name of Zarya did not die; for it had already been emblazoned on the station itself and on the Proton rocket’s nose fairing … and it was too late to change it. None of the pictures of the booster bearing this nomenclature would be released to the West for almost three decades. On 15 April 1971, atop a three-stage Proton, the world’s first space station was duly rolled to its Baikonur launch pad. Four days later, at 4:40 a.m. Moscow Time, Salyut 1 headed into orbit. Not everything went to plan, however. By the end of its first orbit, ground controllers discovered that the cover for its large on-board telescope had not jettisoned properly, significantly jeopardising the scientific mission. Moreover, six of Salyut 1’s eight environmental control fans failed.

One story, told by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, actually led him to be blamed by Mishin for the problems with the fans … and not lightly, either. Leonov was slated to command the second flight to Salyut 1. “All my possessions—my underwear, pyjamas, sketch pad, and coloured pencils—had already been stored aboard Salyut 1,” he wrote in Two Sides of the Moon. “For some time people thought my belongings had caused the [environmental control] system to malfunction; that the crayons and the thread that held them together had become entangled with some operational part of the spacecraft.” At one point, Mishin phoned Leonov and, in all seriousness, it seems, blamed him outright for damaging the environmental control system with his crayons. …

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.  Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Nevertheless, preparations continued for the launch of Soyuz 10 cosmonauts Vladimir Shatalov, Alexei Yeliseyev, and Nikolai Rukavishnikov in the early hours of 22 April. The cosmonauts were inserted into Soyuz 10 early that morning and all seemed to be proceeding normally until a minute before the scheduled blast off, when it was discovered that one of the masts on the service tower refused to retract as planned. The mast in question supplied electrical power to the rocket’s third stage and had failed to detach because rainwater had accumulated in the connector and frozen in place. It was feared that the launch escape system might be spuriously activated, maybe causing an explosion, and with reluctance Vasili Mishin agreed to postpone until the following day.

Temperatures at the launch site dropped precipitously to -25°C during the night, and when the cosmonauts arrived at the pad shortly after midnight on the 23rd they wore thick black leather coats over their flight suits to keep out the intense cold. After again being strapped into Soyuz 10’s cabin, they were astonished by a repeat of exactly the same problem. On this occasion, however, Mishin opted to push ahead regardless, and at 2:54 a.m. Moscow Time, Soyuz 10 lifted off and entered orbit a few minutes later. Despite the successful launch, the prognosis for a good mission remained low: the cover on Salyut 1’s scientific compartment still refused to budge, threatening the loss of at least 90 percent of the crew’s scientific objectives, and the failed ventilation fans raised the prospect of a station atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide and other “harmful materials.”

The Western media had already put two and two together and judged that the large Salyut 1 was almost certainly a Soviet orbital station and that Soyuz 10 was carrying its first long-duration crew. “Observers saw the two ships,” Time told its readers on 3 May, “shining as brightly as first-magnitude stars, crossing the night skies of northern Europe.” Yet the position of Soyuz 10 “ahead” of its target was presumed in the West to be an error and Vladimir Shatalov’s space-to-ground comments—“Looks like you threw us up a bit too high. Well, it doesn’t matter, we’ll fix it”—only served to reinforce such notions.

At length, Soyuz 10’s “Igla” (“Needle”) rendezvous device brought the spacecraft within 600 feet of Salyut 1, whereupon Shatalov again took manual control. “All the dynamic operations of the ship were conducted without any problems,” he noted later. “The only issue appeared at the time that the Igla took control of the approach: the ship would oscillate from side to side periodically, requiring the firing of the correction engines. At a distance of 150 m, I took manual control. It was simpler than on the Soyuz 4 mission. The station grew bigger and bigger—in space it appeared to be much larger than it had on the ground! When we were very close, Alexei and Nikolai carefully inspected its docking mechanism, antennas, and solar panels.” Docking came at 4:47 a.m. Moscow Time. The first men ever to visit a space station were about to open it up for business, or so they thought. What should have been a moment of euphoria succumbed to the ugly reality that the docking was not, in fact, a secure one.

Soyuz 10 begins its journey on 23 April 1971. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Soyuz 10 begins its journey on 23 April 1971. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

The three cosmonauts heard and felt vehicle motions and a slight scraping as Soyuz 10’s probe slid into the cone-like receptacle of Salyut 1, and then began to retract in an action designed to draw the two vehicles together in a metallic embrace. However, all was not well. Shortly before five in the morning, and nine minutes after the initial contact, Shatalov radioed to Yevpatoria that the docking indicator on his instrument panel was unlit, suggesting a problem with the coupling mechanism. Telemetry indicated there was a tiny “gap” between the vehicles. Nothing Shatalov tried had any effect—not even firing Soyuz 10’s engines in a brute-force attempt to bring them firmly together. The spacecraft was connected to the station only by small latches at the head of its probe.

“As the probe penetrated the drogue,”explained Grujica Ivanovich in his book Salyut: The World’s First Space Station, “the spacecraft had been deflected and the control system had tried to eliminate the angular deflections. However, the ship was no longer free to manoeuvre and instead of rotating about its centre of mass, as the control system expected, it swung on the end of the probe and this broke part of the mechanism.” The cause was twofold: firstly, Soyuz 10’s control system was configured to remain “active” after the initial capture and secondly, the docking sequence was automated. “Yeliseyev, who had participated in the development of the control system, had realised that the control system was jeopardising the docking process,” continued Ivanovich, “but had no way to intervene. He was a frustrated spectator.” Any attempt to retry docking was now futile and the only option was to separate from Salyut 1. The lack of space suits aboard Soyuz 10 also meant that none of the crew could transfer to the station by EVA means.

As his crewmates glumly monitored their instruments, Rukavishnikov moved into the orbital module in order to verify the electrical contacts of the docking mechanism and ensure that the retraction had not been halted by something as simple as an erroneous signal. Unfortunately, all of the connectors were as they should be. After four frustrating orbits in this “soft docked” state, the cosmonauts were instructed to separate from Salyut—a process which proved incredibly difficult because the designers of the docking apparatus had assumed that a spacecraft wishing to undock would be successfully docked with the station in the first place. Since Soyuz 10’s docking mechanism had not fully engaged with Salyut 1’s drogue, it was quite possible that the spacecraft might fail to separate. Indeed, on Shatalov’s first attempt he fired the thrusters … and the spacecraft simply swung around on its damaged probe. Back in the Yevpatoria control room in the Crimea, General Andrei Karas reputedly shouted sarcastically: “Well, congratulations! You’ve developed a docking system in which Mum doesn’t release Dad!”

There were two emergency options to release Soyuz 10 from the station, and neither of them held much promise for the future of Salyut 1. The first was to cut loose the docking mechanism at the front of the spacecraft, and the second was to shut the descent module hatch and separate from Soyuz 10’s orbital module, leaving that hanging uselessly on the front of the station. In either case, access to the station, which had only one docking port, would be blocked. Fortunately, Vsevolod Zhivoglotov, a member of the docking mechanism team, suggested an alternative and instructions were radioed to Rukavishnikov. The cosmonaut entered the orbital module and reconnected a number of cables to “deceive” the mechanism into assuming that a release command had been issued by the station itself. That command was issued at 10:17 a.m., less than six hours after the initial docking … and it worked. Soyuz 10 was finally free and pulled slowly away from Salyut 1.

Shatalov maintained close formation with the station while ground controllers—not yet appreciating that the probe mechanism had been damaged—debated whether to attempt a second docking. An analysis of the state of Soyuz 10’s gyroscopes, propellant levels, and oxygen supplies made this impossible, and Shatalov was ordered to prepare for an emergency return to Earth early on 25 April 1971. That night, Shatalov and Yeliseyev snoozed fitfully, but Rukavishnikov floated, wide awake, his eyes glued to the window, snapping photographs. It was not just that he was awestruck by the beauty of his home planet; he was also cold. “At a temperature of 20 degrees,” he grumbled later, “it is impossible to sleep in the flight suits. During the first night, we slept only two or three hours. Instead of sleeping, we sat and shivered. It is necessary to carry sleeping bags.” The nocturnal re-entry, which began at 1:59 a.m., was spectacular; the descent module was enveloped in glowing plasma, and the three men likened their ride home to being inside a neon tube, with colours constantly changing.

Salyut 1, the world's first Earth-orbiting space station, in orbit. This would represent the start of a Soviet and Russian journey in long-duration spaceflight which continues to this day. Photo Credit: Roscosmos
Salyut 1, the world’s first Earth-orbiting space station, in orbit. This would represent the start of a Soviet and Russian journey in long-duration spaceflight which continues to this day. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

Touchdown at 2:40 a.m. was 120 km northwest of Karaganda, close to a lake, after a flight lasting a few minutes shy of two full days. Naturally, the problem for the Soviet leadership was how to report the mission to the outside world. The solution: that Soyuz 10 was simply testing the rendezvous and docking hardware and that the cosmonauts had absolutely no intention of entering or occupying Salyut 1. Speaking on Radio Moscow a few days later, Shatalov said that the mission was “not extensive in duration, but tense and magnificent in its tasks.”

Some observers in the West were not entirely fooled. Tom Stafford, who was at the time NASA’s chief astronaut, related in his autobiography, We Have Capture, that “we knew that was bull: you wouldn’t send a crew to make that kind of test, then bring them home after 48 hours.” Others in the Western media were reaching similar conclusions. On 10 May 1971, Time told its readers that the “delay in the launch of Soyuz 10 … stirred more suspicions” about difficulties with Salyut 1, and that “officials were apparently deciding if it was worthwhile trying to rendezvous and dock with a craft that would not long remain in orbit.”

The reality would not be known for many years. Even in the early 1990s, it was still widely suspected that some difficulty in equalizing pressure between the Soyuz and Salyut was to blame. This possibility was also aired by Soviet space analyst Phillip Clark in his 1988 book, The Soviet Manned Space Programme. There was also speculation that Rukavishnikov suffered debilitating space sickness and that this contributed to the premature return to Earth. Former cosmonaut Boris Yegorov, the first doctor to fly in space, was quoted as saying Rukavishnikov experienced “unusual and rather unpleasant feelings” as a result of the increased blood flow to his head—a normal consequence of entering the weightless environment—and even that he had suffered severe vertigo and been unable to move into the large interior of Salyut. In truth, Rukavishnikov’s biomedical data confirmed that he coped well and he actually felt better than either Shatalov or Yeliseyev, but in the absence of any other explanations, such stories persisted for more than two decades.

The misfortune which befell Soyuz 10 did not mark the end of the road for Salyut 1, for as many as three new crews were scheduled to inhabit the space station during the course of 1971. All three of those crews would fall victim to similar misfortune, and, in the case of the cosmonauts of Soyuz 11—who triumphantly occupied Salyut for three weeks in June—their mission and their lives would be tragically cut short in their prime.


This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will continue the story of Salyut 1, by focusing on the misfortune which befell the original Soyuz 11 crew and the tragedy which befell their replacements, the first three men to inhabit a space station.


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  1. Ben Evans has written yet another gem, this time regarding the Salyut space station program. He has provided superb, detailed information surrounding the unsuccessful docking of Soyuz 10 in April 1971. Ivanovich’s “Salyut: The World’s First Space Station” is required reading for any “space buff,” offering the reading a keen perspective on how the Salyut program quickly became a reality in a short period of time. I am looking forward to next week’s article.

    • Tom, I am in absolute agreement with your articulate, accurate assessment that Ben has created “yet another gem”. His work speaks for itself, and is the best research, compilation, analysis, and exposition that I have ever read. His books on spaceflight are, without question, excellent in every respect. This is the history that should be taught at university.

  2. Karol: Thank you for the kind words. If there would be such a “space history” course or curriculum at the university level, Ben would have to be the lead professor. Again, he is one of the true giants of spaceflight reporting. It would be fun to be one of the “researchers” to assist him, no?

    • Tom, I think it’s a safe bet that we would both be willing to pay tuition for the opportunity to be a university level research assistant to Ben in his Department of Spaceflight History (hey,I’d even keep the coffee pot brewing). 🙂

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