I had the great good fortune of living through the early days of manned space flight. I was nine years old when the Russians orbited the first satellite, and the early manned flights came when I was in high school. I watched every American launch with fascination and envy, but the Russian launches were shrouded in secrecy. I knew only the bare minimum that all Americans knew. I’m not sure the president knew much more.
During those early days, nothing was routine. Every mission was dangerous. They still are, of course, but not so much as then. American failures were there for all the world to see, while the Soviets kept their’s secret. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, information about the early Russian space program became generally available, but by then few people cared. I did, and I sought out the stories.
Today is the fifty-first anniversary of the first space walk – by the USSR. I would have brought it to you on the fiftieth anniversary, but I wasn’t blogging yet. Voskhod 2 was a triumph, and also a flight which went spectacularly awry.
March 18-19, 1965
The first six manned Soviet spaceflights were aboard Vostok craft. Gagarin became the first man in space on Vostok 1, Tereshkova became the first woman in space on Vostok 6. I plan to talk about them on their anniversaries, in April and June.
Vostok astronauts wore space suits throughout their flights and landed by personal parachute separate from the descent module. Before the second generation Soyuz spacecraft came on line, the Soviets launched two additional manned missions on modified Vostoks called Voskhod.
On Voskhod, a backup solid fuel retrorocket was added to the spherical descent module, another additional rocket softened the landing so that the cosmonauts could remain within the descent module, and the ejection seat was no longer used. This allowed Voskhod 1 to carry three astronauts where Vostok had carried only one.
Voskhod 1 cosmonauts flew without space suits, as did early Soyuz missions. Voskhod 2 cosmonauts Belyayev and Leonov wore space suits because they were scheduled for the first space walk. Their craft also carried an inflatable airlock.
American space walks first took place during the Gemini program (see post 87). That craft had two hatches but no airlock; both astronauts were in vacuum during the entire spacewalk.
On Voskhod 2, Leonov crawled into the airlock, sealed the inner door and opened the outer one. Belyayev remained in the pressurized descent module.
For ten minutes, Leonov remained within the airlock but exposed to the vacuum of space, then he slipped free and floated on a tether for another ten minutes. He was called back in to terminate his space walk, and his difficulties began.
(Or perhaps they had already begun. Some sources state that he “experienced a disorienting euphoria” during the space walk and other sources state that he suffered bends-like symptoms after the space walk was over; I haven’t been able to confirm these statements.)
It is certain that he had extreme difficulty reentering the airlock. His space suit had over inflated; the boots and gloves had slipped beyond his toes and fingertips, and his suit had increased in girth. He had to vent part of his rapidly depleting oxygen in order to bring his suit down in size, and even then had to enter the airlock head first, instead of feet first as planned. Once inside the airlock, he had extreme difficulty contorting his body to close the outer door. All the time, his body was heating up dangerously. Since he was surrounded by vacuum, there was nothing to carry away the heat his body was generating.
Once air pressure had been restored in the airlock, Belyayev opened the inner door and Leonov was safe. For the moment. As he said in an article for Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine in 2005, “the difficulties I experienced reentering the spacecraft were just the start of a series of dire emergencies that almost cost us our lives.”
The mission had achieved it’s goal and it was time to return, but just before the scheduled time for firing retro rockets the cosmonauts discovered that their automatic guidance system was malfunctioning. It took time to prepare for manual entry, so they had to wait one orbit, which would make them miss their return point by a thousand miles. Most of that orbit they were out of radio communications. When communications were restored, ground control asked them where they had landed, not knowing of their difficulties.
Their orbit was set, but the time they would fire their retro rockets would determine where on that orbit they would land. They chose a target just past the Urals. Using the clumsy and difficult manual backup equipment, they achieved the correct attitude and fired the retro rockets in the conical rear portion of the craft called the orbital module. The orbital and landing modules were supposed to separate ten seconds after retrofire. They didn’t.
The two cosmonauts knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. Instead of the steady press of force against their backs as they decelerated, they found themselves whipped about by confused forces that exceeded ten gravities. A communication cable between the two modules had failed to release, and now both modules were spinning about each other, tethered by the cable.
Finally, about 60 miles up, the cable burned through and the cosmonauts were freed. The drogue chute deployed, and then the main chute. All was peaceful and in order – briefly. Then it became dark as they dropped below cloud cover, the final rocket fired to slow them to landing speed, and they landed in 6 feet of snow.
They were 1200 miles beyond their intended landing point.
They blew the explosive bolts to release the hatch. It didn’t open. They had landed in the middle of a forest and the hatch was held shut by a tree. By yanking violently they dislodged it and it fell away, lost in the snow.
They made their way out of the spacecraft and waded through snow to a small clearing. Bikonur had not heard their landing signal, but a passing cargo plane had. It circled, and was soon joined by other planes and helicopters, but none of them could land in the rough taiga. Pilots threw a bottle of cognac; it broke. They threw warm clothing which got caught in the trees, but at least two pairs of wolfskin boots made it to the ground.
The light was failing. The cosmonauts returned to their landing module for shelter. Leonov was walking in calf deep sweat still trapped in his space suit from his space walk. Both cosmonauts stripped, removed the liners from their space suits and wring them as dry as possible, then put the on again along with the wolf skin boots and abandoned the useless space suits. The crawled into the landing module for the night, well aware that the taiga was filled with bears and wolves, and that this was mating season, when they were most aggressive.
The hatch was out of reach. The lights failed, but the circulation fan ran all night. The temperature dropped to 22 below zero.
A rescue party arrived on skis the next morning; they chopped trees to build a small log cabin and a big fire. The cosmonauts spent a second night, then skied out to where a second, larger party had chopped down enough trees for a helicopter to land.
I guess they made ‘em tough in those days. i suspect they still do.