Veteran cosmonaut Valeri Kubasov, who flew three space missions and participated as a crew member in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) joint venture in July 1975, died yesterday (Wednesday, 19 February). He was 79. A member of the Soviet and later Russian space program for almost three decades, Kubasov accrued nearly 19 days in space and was one of the first civilian cosmonauts ever to command a space mission. “Very sad to report that Valeri Kubasov has passed away in Moscow,” the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) announced, describing him as “a true pioneer of spaceflight and international co-operation in space.” He leaves behind a wife and a son and daughter.
Valeri Nikolayevich Kubasov was born in the town of Vyazniki, in Vladimir Oblast, about 125 miles (200 km) east of Moscow, on 7 January 1935. He seemed destined to someday become a cosmonaut from his earliest days as an engineer at Sergei Korolev’s OKB-1 design bureau. In May 1964, whilst working for the famed “Chief Designer,” Kubasov was one of a handful of promising civilian candidates who survived preliminary medical screening to be considered for a position on one of the Soviet Union’s Voskhod missions. Two years later, after some “relaxation” of the existing rules, he and two other young engineers—Georgi Grechko and Vladislav Volkov—were officially accepted into the newly established civilian cosmonaut corps. When Soyuz 5 lifted off in January 1969, Kubasov watched intently from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as crewman Alexei Yeliseyev’s backup. Shortly afterward, he watched as Yeliseyev participated in the Soviet Union’s second EVA … a risky, ship-to-ship spacewalking transfer between Soyuz 5 and Soyuz 4.
Nine months later, Kubasov got his chance, joining fellow cosmonaut Georgi Shonin aboard Soyuz 6 in a unique “troika” mission, which was regarded in the West as a weak Soviet response to Apollo 11’s successful landing on the Moon. Yet this three-mission extravaganza featured three piloted Soyuz spacecraft and no fewer than seven cosmonauts. Shonin and Kubasov launched first on 11 October 1969, followed by Anatoli Filipchenko, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Gorbatko aboard Soyuz 7 on 12 October, and Vladimir Shatalov and Alexei Yeliseyev aboard Soyuz 8 on 13 October. However, the spectacle of seeing rapid-fire Soviet missions in 1969 did not have the same impact as it had when pairs of Vostoks were launched in 1962-1963. Much of what the troika mission set out to accomplish—multiple vehicles in orbit, rendezvous, and possibly docking—had already been done repeatedly by the United States. As one young Muscovite glumly put it: “It’s not much compared with the Moon, is it?”
Still, the joint mission achieved many scientific and technical goals. Shonin and Kubasov worked on biomedical experiments and Earth resources photography, but it would appear that one of their major objectives was to observe the rendezvous and docking of Soyuz 7 and 8. However, a failure of the Igla (“Needle”) rendezvous device, coupled with excessive usage of attitude-control propellant and other technical difficulties, prevented a docking. As the three craft drifted apart to complete their individual missions, Shonin and Kubasov became the first humans to successfully demonstrate a welding furnace in space. Unfortunately, they nearly burned a hole in the wall of Soyuz 6’s orbital module in the process. …
The “Vulcan” furnace required internal hatches between the orbital and descent modules to be sealed, with the welding performed automatically, monitored by Kubasov. Samples of stainless steel and titanium were welded together, then cut, after which the hatches were opened for Kubasov to perform a hand-held welding task. Not until 1990 did it become clear that Vulcan’s low-pressure compressed arc had inadvertently aimed a beam at the wall of the orbital module. Upon opening the hatch, the cosmonauts were shocked to discover the damage and, fearing a depressurization, they retreated back to the descent module. Soyuz 6 landed safely on 16 October, after five days in space.
Following his first mission, Kubasov began training to fly aboard the world’s first space station, Salyut 1, assigned with Shonin and another cosmonaut, Pyotr Kolodin. By late 1970, it seemed likely that they would fly the 45-day Soyuz 11 mission to the station sometime in the summer of the following year, but over the following months the situation changed drastically. When Soyuz 10 failed to dock with Salyut 1 in April 1971, it was left to Soyuz 11—whose crew had by this point lost Shonin as its commander, in favor of veteran cosmonaut Alexei Leonov—to attempt humanity’s first mission to an orbital space station. By the beginning of June, the three men were only days away from launch when something unexpected happened.
On the 3rd, doctors from the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow found a swelling on Kubasov’s right lung, about the size of a chicken egg. Fearing the onset of tuberculosis, the entire Soyuz 11 crew was grounded and replaced by their backups: Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev. “It turned out later,” wrote Leonov in his memoir, Two Sides of the Moon, “that [Kubasov] was allergic to a chemical insecticide used to spray trees.” Flight rules dictated that if a cosmonaut fell ill before leaving for the Baikonur launch site, he should be substituted for his backup, and the rest of the crew would remain intact. However, the fact that Leonov, Kubasov, and Kolodin had already been at Baikonur for more than a week invoked the second part of the rule, which demanded the replacement of the whole crew.
Not surprisingly, all three men were furious. Surely, wrote Leonov, if he and Kolodin had been infected by Kubasov, then they would have already become sick. They appealed to their senior managers, but to no avail. On 6 June, Dobrovolsky, Volkov, and Patsayev blasted off aboard Soyuz 11 and triumphantly occupied Salyut 1 for three weeks. In a roundabout sort of way, Leonov and Kubasov achieved a measure of revenge on their managers. When instructed to take the traditional walk with the prime crew in homage to their predecessors, both men refused … not out of bitterness toward Dobrovolsky’s men, but out of bitterness against an ill-judged decision. “If I am healthy, then I must fly,” Kubasov is said to have declared. “If I am sick, then I should not be there!”
Tragically, the return to Earth of Soyuz 11 on 29 June 1971 suffered a valve malfunction, which removed all of the oxygen from the spacecraft, and Dobrovolsky, Volkov, and Patsayev died during their descent.
Leonov and Kubasov remained together for a subsequent mission to a second Salyut, but their efforts came to nothing in July 1972 when a Proton launch vehicle failure left them with no space station to visit. Another attempt to orbit a third Salyut also failed in May 1973, causing the two hapless cosmonauts to be stood down again. Finally, they were assigned to the Soviet half of the ASTP mission, for which they were given their own English language teachers for six to eight hours of daily instruction. The two men were launched aboard Soyuz 19 on 15 July 1975, and Kubasov’s presence was fortuitous, for within minutes of reaching orbit one of the spacecraft’s television cameras failed. Renowned in the cosmonaut corps as a handyman, Kubasov worked fruitlessly to revive the camera, but earned himself glowing praise from his comrades back home. “On our return to Earth,” Leonov wrote, “this prompted a hilarious mail bag of requests from fellow Soviet citizens wanting Kubasov and me to come and fix their television sets!”
Two days later, following a flawless docking with the Apollo spacecraft and U.S. astronauts Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton, the stage was set for a period of joint experiments and activities in orbit. At one stage, Kubasov and Brand performed a television broadcast from aboard Soyuz 19. Kubasov wondered aloud to his American audience which of their two nations was the most beautiful, before diplomatically concluding that neither possessed the majesty of “our Blue Planet.” Following undocking, Soyuz 19 returned home on 21 July, followed by Stafford’s crew a few days later.
Kubasov’s subsequent career led him to become one of the first civilian cosmonauts to command his own Soyuz mission. Assigned to one of the “Intercosmos” missions—in which Soviet-aligned socialist and Communist nations were given the opportunity for one of their countrymen to travel into space—he initially served as backup commander of Soyuz 30, a joint flight with Poland in June 1978. He was then expected to command Soyuz 34, teamed with Hungary’s first cosmonaut, Bertalan Farkas, which was scheduled for launch to the Salyut 6 space station on 6 June 1979. However, the failure of an earlier mission, Soyuz 33, to dock with Salyut 6 in April of that year, due to an engine malfunction, put all subsequent flights on hold. Interestingly, when the press office at the Hungarian Embassy in London issued the biographies of Kubasov and Farkas in May 1980, they mistakenly failed to adjust the launch date … which still stipulated “June 1979.”
The two men rocketed into orbit aboard Soyuz 36 on 26 May and spent about a week working alongside the Salyut 6 resident crew of Soviet cosmonauts Leonid Popov and Valeri Ryumin. Their workload of experiments was heavy, and it was said that Kubasov and Farkas averaged about three hours of sleep per night. They carried out Earth observations and photography, together with life sciences investigations, and returned home aboard another spacecraft, Soyuz 35, on 3 June. (It was by now routine practice for visiting crews to return to Earth in the “older” vehicle, thus leaving the long-duration resident crew with a “fresh” Soyuz.) The only glitch was an altimeter malfunction during the final seconds of their descent, which caused Soyuz 35’s solid-fueled retrorockets to fail, giving them a harsh thump on touchdown.
With 18 days, 17 hours, and 57 minutes in space, spread across three missions, Valeri Kubasov currently stands as one of the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s most accomplished cosmonauts. He retired from the cosmonaut corps in November 1993 to serve as deputy director for RSC Energia. In addition to his medals as a Hero of the Soviet Union, he also received the Order of Lenin. He was married to Ludmilla Kurovskaya, and had a daughter, Ekaterina, and a son, Dmitri, to whom AmericaSpace extends its sincere condolences.