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early Soviet spaceflight

Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet Union's first person in space, before his first space flight, April 12, 1961.

The Soviet Union achieved one of the most important “firsts” in the history of spaceflight: the first flight of a human in space in 1961. From this beginning, the Soviets accumulated a series of firsts in the 1960s that established a great legacy of daring exploration.

Interior of Voshkod 1.

The first serious proposals for human space exploration in the Soviet Union emerged in the mid-1950s when legendary Chief Designer Sergey Korolev of the so-called OKB-1 (the Russian-language abbreviation for “Experimental Design Bureau No. 1”) ordered a small team to explore options for suborbital flights, or “hops,” into the upper atmosphere. By 1958, a second team began work on the design of an orbital spaceship capable of circling, or orbiting, the Earth. At the end of the year, Korolev decided to abandon the suborbital option and focus completely on a single-seater spaceship. This spacecraft was originally known as the Object 3K and later renamed “Vostok” (the Russian word for “east”). The Soviet government officially approved the Vostok project in May 1959, around the same time that across the Atlantic, the United States set to work on its own Project Mercury-designed to send a single astronaut into space.

The Vostok was a two-module spacecraft. A spherical “reentry apparatus” carried a single pilot in his or her spacesuit and had sufficient life support for a ten-day flight in space. A conical “instrument compartment” was connected to the sphere and contained various subsystems such as the main engine to return the ship to the Earth.

After a one-year long flight-test program, during which seven Vostoks were launched with varying degrees of success, on April 12, 1961, the first piloted Vostok spaceship lifted off with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, a 27-year-old Air Force major. He became the first human to leave the planet and circle the globe. After a single orbit, Gagarin's ship descended into the Earth's atmosphere. At a height of seven kilometres (4.3 miles), he ejected from his capsule and landed safely by parachute not far from the planned landing point in Central Asia. A month later, U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard flew his Friendship 7 spacecraft on a 15-minute hop into the upper atmosphere. Internationally, his flight paled in comparison with Gagarin's nearly two-hour-long circling of the Earth.

Gagarin's flight was a major triumph in the space race and prompted U.S. President John F. Kennedy to announce the goal of landing an American on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

In August 1961, the Soviets launched Vostok-2 with 25-year-old cosmonaut German Titov, who became the first person to spend a whole day in space. A year later, in August 1962, Korolev's OKB-1 launched into space two Vostok spacecraft, Vostok-3 and Vostok-4, within a day of each other. Each carried a single cosmonaut. This “group flight,” during which the spaceships approached to about five kilometres of each other, electrified the whole world. In June 1963, the Soviets followed with a second group flight with Vostok-5 and Vostok-6. The latter spacecraft carried 26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space. Although she was ill for part of the flight, her mission was yet another in a series of spectacular firsts for the Soviets that gave the impression of an expanding and ambitious space program.

In truth, by the mid-1960s, the Soviets were falling behind the Americans. The Soviet government did not consider space exploration a big priority. Instead, the Soviets invested vast amounts of money in developing very expensive military systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Soviet leadership took advantage of space spectaculars to trumpet the “advantages” of a communist society but was less eager to fund expensive projects that had little military application.

By 1964, the Americans began flying test capsules of their second generation Gemini spacecraft designed to carry two astronauts into Earth orbit to carry out complex operations such as rendezvous, docking, and spacewalks. With nothing available that could compare to the Gemini, Korolev decided to modify the old Vostok spacecraft to carry out two spectacular missions that would upstage Gemini. The “new” redesigned Vostok was called “Voskhod” (Russian for “rise”). In October 1964, three men were packed into the first Voskhod for a one-day mission. The Soviets thus claimed the first multi-person spaceflight. In March 1965, on the Voskhod-2 mission, cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov became the first person to “walk” in space. He used a specially built airlock to step out of his space capsule, thus claiming yet another significant first for the Soviet space program. The Voskhod-2 mission was the last in an unprecedented series of “firsts” for the Soviet space program. In January 1966, Korolev died prematurely during a routine operation. Things would never be the same afterwards.

Earlier, in 1962, the OKB-1 had begun working on a new, more capable spacecraft named Object 7K or “Soyuz” (Russian for “union”). The Soyuz complex was originally designed to send two cosmonauts around the Moon on a circumlunar flight. By 1965, Korolev decided on a more modest goal: to use the Soyuz for Earth orbital missions to perform rendezvous, docking, and spacewalks, in some ways similar to the American Gemini spacecraft.

The Soyuz spacecraft consisted of three modules: a cylindrical “instrument module” housing electrical and propulsion systems, a headlight-shaped re-entry module to carry and return the crew, and a spheroid orbital module for the crew to conduct experiments. The mass of an average early Soyuz was on the order of 14,550 pounds (6,600 kilograms).

After more than two years of delay, the first Soyuz was launched into orbit on April 23, 1967, with veteran cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on board. The plan was for his Soyuz-1 spacecraft to dock with another three-person Soyuz-2 to be launched the following day. Unfortunately, Komarov ran into trouble immediately upon reaching orbit: one of his solar panels failed to open and major orientation systems failed. The second Soyuz launch was cancelled and Komarov ordered to return to Earth after about a day in space. During his re-entry, both the primary and reserve parachutes failed, and his capsule impacted on the ground at a very high speed, killing him instantly. It was the first in-flight fatality in the history of space exploration.

Soyuz flights finally resumed in October 1968. A single cosmonaut on Soyuz-3 tried unsuccessfully to dock with the automated Soyuz-2. Although the docking failed, the flight declared the spaceship ready for future operations. In January 1969, cosmonauts finally carried out the mission planned for Komarov two years earlier. Soyuz-4 and Soyuz-5 docked in Earth orbit and two cosmonauts “spacewalked” from one ship to another and subsequently returned to Earth. It was the first time that persons launched in one ship returned in another.

The Soyuz program continued with a three-spacecraft “group flight” in October 1969 during which Soyuz-6, Soyuz-7, and Soyuz-8 carried out a number of approaches to each other. In June 1970, two cosmonauts aboard Soyuz-9 spent nearly 18 days in space circling the Earth. With this mission, the Soviets regained the record for the longest piloted spaceflight in history. The mission also set the stage for the subsequent space station missions on board Salyut beginning in 1971.

Since 1971, the Soyuz has primarily served as a ferry craft for delivering crews and supplies to Soviet/Russian space stations such as Salyut and Mir. In a modified version, it continues to fly to this day, delivering visiting crews to the International Space Station. Over the years, as many as seven different versions of the Soyuz have flown, but all have retained the basic three-module design.

Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz comprised the visible side of Soviet human space exploration in the 1960s and 1970s. There were also many other projects that were funded and approved but which never saw the light of day due to a variety of political and financial problems. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Soviet Air Force funded several space-plane programs such as the PKA (“Gliding Space Apparatus”), the M-48, the Raketoplan, Kosmoplan, Spiral, and the LKS (“Light Space Ship”). None of these ever made it into space.

In addition, the Soviet military approved several versions of the Soyuz for military flights, such as the Soyuz-R (a reconnaissance platform), Soyuz-P (a battle spaceship), the Zvezda (Russian for “star”) station, and the Soyuz-VI. None of these made it into space either.

There were also several projects to build huge space stations in Earth orbit such as the TOS (“Heavy Orbital Station”) and MOK (“Multirole Orbital Complex”). These were, of course, in addition to the vast program to send cosmonauts to the Moon using the N1 launch vehicle and space station programs such as Salyut, Almaz, and Mir.

In some sense, the story of Soviet human spaceflight in the early years was one of promise that never reached fruition.