Fashioning Vostok 1

In a previous post, I unravelled some of the mystery surrounding Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 mission. One of the principle differences I tried to bring to the forefront in that post, as well as others discussing the Soviet Space Program, is the fundamental difference between its closed structure and NASA’s open one. The Soviet Union tightly controlled what information the public knew about the space program. They didn’t broadcast test launches live or introduce their cosmonauts to the country as heroes amid great fanfare. (Left, the launch of Vostok 1. 1961. Image source:

But the Soviet Space Program’s development from unmanned satellite to manned orbital flight was not all that different from NASA’s, and the variable successes and failures in developing manned spaceflight put both organizations on par. A closer look at the lead up to the launch of Vostok 1 almost humanizes the Soviet machine that presented perfect spaceflight with no mention of failures. Again, I have no interest in denigrating the Soviet accomplishments; I only hope to add dimension to the popular stories.

The Soviet Space program achieved great successes in its infancy in the late 1950s. The Sputnik program sent satellites in orbit around the Earth while the Luna program was the first to reach the moon and return images of its far side.  Thus from the start, the technological might of the new program promised a manned mission would soon be on the horizon. (Left, a technician puts the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, 1957.)

Plans for manned flight were on the drawing board by 1958, and in 1959 the Soviet Space Program selected its first group of cosmonauts. Twenty men who typified the Soviet ideal – they came from humble backgrounds and had moved through the Soviet system to achieve esteemed positions within the military as test and fighter pilots.

Their selection and the formation of the Soviet cosmonaut corps was a quiet affair. The men and their families took up residence at a makeshift facility where they began a training regimen focussed on calisthenics. As the program developed and the facility improved, calisthenics gave way to centrifuge training and other more relevant training platforms by 1960.

With the rapidly developing technology and the men in training, a prospective manned launch date could be set. The conservative estimate from Soviet engineers, led by Chief Designer Sergei Korolev (right), was that a manned flight would be possible early in 1961. A February launch was set as the prospective goal.

The proposed mission was the first in the Vostok program. The mission profile was fairly simple. The spacecraft would launch on a Korabl rocket, a single rocket with four smaller staging rockets strapped around the sides, from the Baikonur cosmodrome (actually at the city of Tyura-Tam). 119 seconds after launch, the four smaller rockets would jettison. Next, the spacecraft’s shroud, the cover that protected it from atmospheric friction during ascent, would jettison 156 seconds after launch. 300 seconds after launch, the now-spent main stage of the rocket would jettison, triggering the rocket’s third stage. This final stage would shut down at 676 seconds after launch, and the Vostok capsule would then be in orbit.

Landing would begin with an attitude adjustment in orbit after which the retrorocket would fire to slow the capsule. At the same time as the retrofire burn, the two parts of the Vostok capsule would separate; the instrument unit and the manned capsule (called the descent apparatus) would return to Earth separately. About two and a half miles above the surface, a drogue chute would deploy to slow the capsule. With some control in the descent speed, the capsule’s hatch would blow and the pilot would be ejected from the capsule. Both he and his capsule would land safely by individual parachutes within miles of one another.

While this mission profile was fairly simple, it did demand that a number of things occur in sequence and on time. This in turn required extensive testing not only of each system individually, but of the full Korabl-Vostok system together.

A schematic of a Vostok mission.

Preliminary system tests had been generally successful with each piece of the puzzle coming together. True to the rapid progress of the Soviet Union’s efforts in space, full-scale tests of the prospective Vostok flight were well underway towards the end of 1960. But as February drew closer, the Soviet Space Program began to encounter significant failures and setbacks that not only shook Korolev’s faith in his program but also threatened the continued triumphs of the Soviet Union in space.

A full-scale test of the Korabl-Vostok configuration was launched on December 22, 1960. The Korabl’s third stage engine cut off prematurely. This triggered an emergency abort and the pilot’s ejection system. The capsule was landed downrange from the launch station into a nearly inaccessible area of Siberia; its homing signal was all the search party could use to eventually find the capsule.

Investigation into the failed test revealed failures that had dogged the program before. The premature cut-off of Korabl’s third stage had been a problem in previous tests, and it was proving to be unreliable dangerously close to the prospective February launch date.

The abort failed to trigger separation of the spacecraft’s instrument and descent portions. A failed separation could be disastrous during a manned return from orbit. If the two units remained mated, the result would be a dizzying and dangerous tumbling fall. This failed tests proved that the heat generated during atmospheric reentry would sever the mated spacecraft, but there was no guarantee the spacecraft or its occupant could survive the heat from a tumbling reentry. (Pictured is a Vostok spacecraft with its third stage attached.)

Problems were also found within the Vostok capsule’s systems. Following the abort command, the hatch was supposed to jettison two and a half seconds before the pilot’s ejection seat. This would make sure the pilot had a clear space to move through during his high-speed exit from the capsule. The timing of these key events was imperfect; both the hatch and the ejection seat fired simultaneously. This prevented the pilot’s seat from separating with the capsule cleanly, and the resulting shockwave deformed the capsule. Like the tumbling reentry, this was not a survivable malfunction.

A further failure in the capsule affected its self-destruct program. As a security measure against Soviet technology falling into the wrong hands, test capsules were set to self-destruct sixty hours after landing – this was a clear holdover from the space program’s roots in the military ballistic missile program.

The self-destruct system’s failure proved fortunate. The lost capsule was recovered in one piece, enabling engineers to extract the vital data and address the failures that had caused the disastrously faulty test. Nevertheless, it was still another system failure to add to the list.

The multiple failures in a single test dealt a blow to the Soviet Space Program. It became clear that the February goal would have to be adjusted. The system was simply not yet man rated. Korolev recommended and convinced the Soviet Space Program that the launches scheduled for February be used for further unmanned tests. The prospective manned launch would depend on the success of subsequent testing.

Soviet luck began to change in 1961 as further tests brought more successes than failures. But the confidence this success brought was a double-edged sword. Korolev began to feel mounting pressure to successfully launch the first man into orbit, and he felt compelled to do so as soon as possible. He keenly followed developments of the American Mercury program and was convinced that an American manned spaceflight was imminent.

Korolev suggested the manned launch be rescheduled for the end of April; it would be a celebratory addition to national May Day celebrations. Wary of a possible disaster during a national celebration, however, Khrushchev nixed the idea. He urged Korolev to move the launch date up. Early April became the new target date. (Right, Khrushchev during a visit to the Soviet Space Program in the early 1960s, during the Vostok program era.)

A full dress rehearsal of the proposed Vostok mission was launched in March 1961, complete with a biological payload. A life-size dummy, a ‘cosmonaut’ nicknamed Ivan Ivanovich, occupied the cabin. His bodily cavities were filled with mice, guinea pigs, reptiles, plant seeds, and human blood samples to add a biological element. A dog was also on board in a separate pressurized sphere.

The flight was also the first test of the voice communication system. To make sure engineers on the ground could communicate with the cosmonaut in orbit, they arranged to have Ivan Ivanovich speak to them from orbit.

This presented a unique challenge to the secretive Soviet Space program: what voice could the dummy have that wouldn’t attract the interest of Americans listening? A male speaking voice going through checklists might be interpreted in the west as a secret orbital flight. A vocal recording might lead Western listeners to think that orbital flight had driven the cosmonaut mad and he was up there singing to himself. In the end, a full chorus recording was selected; it was a transmission that would be difficult to interpret as a manned flight. (Left, Ivan Ivanovich with MAKET (DUMMY) written beneath his visor. Source: Astronautix.)

The test mission, Korabl-Sputnik 5, was nearly perfect. The launch vehicle performed well and put the capsule in an optimal orbit. The retrofire, reentry, and descent manoeuvres were executed on time and in the proper sequence. The instrument unit and the descent vehicle separated cleanly.  Like clockwork, Ivan Ivanovich was safely ejected. Both ‘the cosmonaut’ and the descent apparatus landed by their own parachutes.

The only flaw in the test was the uncontrollable weather – heavy snowstorms delayed retrieval of the capsule after landing. While recovery teams waited for the expert charged with disarming the self-destruct program, they carefully removed the dog from the still armed capsule, just in case the sixty hours elapsed before the system could be disarmed.

A final unmanned test at the end of March was without incident. The success elicited the Communist Party’s approval for a manned launch in Korolev’s early April window. The technical pieces of the manned orbital puzzle were coming together. All that was left was to work out was the human element.

Of the twenty men in cosmonaut training, six were handpicked by Korolev as the front-runners. They were the shortest and lightest of the group and were a better fit for the first generation Vostok capsule; subsequent designs would accommodate a taller cosmonaut. But it was one of these six men who would make the first flight. (Left, most of the original group of cosmonauts plus a few engineers. 1960.)

Leading up to the manned launch, decisions had to be made regarding the cosmonaut’s actual role in the flight. One of the necessary decisions was how much control the pilot would have over the capsule.

The decision was worked out in the form of a checklist. Engineers with the Design, Research, and Development office (known by its Russian anagram of OKB-1) prepared a list outlining the cosmonaut’s in-flight duties during every stage of the mission as well as in emergency situations.

This pilot’s checklist sparked debate between its writers and Korolev who, along with other chiefs in the program, sought to take control of the spacecraft away from the cosmonaut. The latter side of the debate argued that for the first flight at least, the pilot should have no responsibilities. As the test flights had proved, the system was sufficiently automated to undertake an orbital mission without a pilot.

The cosmonauts disagreed, pointing to their common background as test pilots for a reason they ought to have control over their craft. The cosmonauts’ chief physician fought back, too, arguing that the men were bright and expertly trained specifically for this mission. They could certainly handle a few simple procedures.

In the end, arguments in favour of pilot control were victorious; the cosmonaut would have the option of manually controlling his spacecraft. To do so, however, he would have to unlock the onboard computer. This was done by six digit code, three of which the cosmonaut had onboard. The missing three were in a sealed envelope he could only open in an emergency situation.

With the technological and human elements in place, the emergency procedures had to be finalized. No matter how confident the Soviet engineers were in their system, a catastrophic failure demanding an emergency abort was a very real possibility. In the interest of ensuring the cosmonaut’s safety, contingency measures were developed leading up to the launch. The pilot would be given a sealed envelope with instructions for how to handle various emergency situations, including how to respond to the men who might find him if he landed outside the Soviet Union.

The telegraph agency of the Soviet Union, referred to by its English anagram TASS, was also instrumental in the safety surrounding the mission. TASS was given sealed envelopes similar to those given to the cosmonaut. With the space program’s approval, TASS could open and publish reports as soon as anything major happened. Broadcasts were timed to coincide with major mission milestones – an international notification that a cosmonaut had achieved orbit would hopefully put everyone on alert to his position if he needed assistance.

Less than three weeks before launch, the death of a cosmonaut threatened to derail progress once again. Cosmonaut trainee Bondarenko was killed when a fire ripped through the pressurized oxygen rich isolation chamber that simulated psychological conditions of spaceflight. The cosmonaut was killed within hours of the incident, but only those who needed to know were told, and this certainly didn’t include the Soviet people. Maintaining high morale at this point was paramount.

Final launch criteria, including a launch date, weren’t set until April 8 during a meeting of the State Commission. Cosmonauts Gagarin and Titov were singled out as the front-runners to pilot the first manned mission, Vostok 1. Each displayed desirable qualities offset by detracting features. The group eventually decided that Gagarin would fly the mission with Titov serving as his backup. The launch date was also set for either April 11 or 12.

Gagarin and Titov didn’t learn of the decision until the following day in a meeting; two days before the possible launch Gagarin learned he would be the first man in space. The press was not privy to the identity of Vostok 1’s pilot. Even the cosmonauts’ wives were kept in the dark. The women were told the launch would be on April 14. The Soviet Space Program hoped to placate frantic wives with this diversionary tactic. (Right, Gagarin in the foreground and Titov in the background. Both cosmonauts suited up on the way to the launch pad the morning of Vostok 1. 1961.)

Gagarin’s flight was far from perfect, but he successfully made a full orbit around the Earth before landing safely in the Soviet Union. The Communist system that put a veil over the space program was part of the reason for its success rate in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The chain of command from inception to execution of a mission was direct.  Khrushchev wanted the first mane in space to be a Communist, and he got it.

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

1. Asif Siddiqi. Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge. University of Florida Press. 2003.

2. Rex Hall and David Shayler. The Rocket Men: Vostok & Voskhod, the First Soviet Manned Spaceflights. UK: Springer Praxis. 2001

3. Colin Burgess and Rex Hall. The first Soviet Cosmonaut Team: their lives, legacy, and historical impact. UK: Springer Praxis. 2009

4. David Scott and Alexei Leonov. Two Sides of the Moon. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. 2004.

Vostok launch image from

Ivan Ivanovich image from Astronautix.


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