Fifty years later: Soyuz-1 revisited (part 1)
After an unusually grueling training program involving countless hours in simulators on the ground, the eight primary and backup cosmonauts for the mission took their final exams for the flight on March 30, and all passed with excellent marks. On April 6, the men visited the depths of the Kremlin to meet with high Central Committee officials and receive wishes of good luck. The same day, Kamanin, accompanied by the prime and backup crews (except Gagarin and Nikolaev), as well as other veteran and rookie cosmonauts, flew into Tiura-Tam (now called Baikonur), the primary Soviet space launch site in Kazakhstan. Gagarin and Nikolaev followed on April 13.12 For many it was the first time that they had spent the celebrated “Cosmonautics Day,” the anniversary of Gagarin’s pioneering flight, at the launch site. At the cosmodrome, Komarov roomed in a cottage at Site 17 with rookie cosmonaut Aleksei Eliseev.13
The actual mission was planned thus: on day 1, the active Soyuz, known as 7K-OK(A) (or simply, Soyuz-1) would take off with Komarov. The following day, as Soyuz-1 was flying over Tiura-Tam, the passive Soyuz, known as 7K-OK(P) (or Soyuz-2), would launch with Bykovskii, Eliseev, and Khrunov. The two spacecraft would then dock on the very first orbit of Soyuz-2. After docking, Eliseev and Khrunov would exit from their depressurized Orbital Module and crawl over to the depressurized Orbital Module of Soyuz-1.14 Following the transfer, Soyuz-1, now with a crew of three, would return the following day. Soyuz-2, with a crew of one, would also return that same day.
There was a meeting of the State Commission on April 14 when the members decided to begin fueling the two launch vehicles and spacecraft. Assuming an eight-day period for complete preparation, the first launch was tentatively set for April 24–25. Despite this schedule, the mood was decidedly mixed. At the State Commission meeting, various technical heads reported on at least 101 anomalies detected in the two spacecraft, including in the telemetry system, communications and TV systems, and orientation systems. Later that day, Mishin telephoned both Ustinov and Brezhnev, the former particularly expressing some anxiety over the impending flight.15 These anxieties were succinctly expressed by Kamanin in his journal entry for April 15:
Fueling of the Soyuz-1 launch stack began at 11:00 pm Moscow Time on April 15. By April 17, fueling of the Soyuz-1 had concluded while fueling of the Soyuz-2 stack begun by 1:00 pm. Thus, with both launchers either fueled or in the process, the two launches were informally set for April 24–26.
The final State Commission meeting prior to launch took place at 2:00 pm Moscow Time (which was 4:00 pm local time) on April 20 at Site 2 at the firing range. The launch of Soyuz-1 was set for 3:35 am Moscow Time on April 23, while the launch of Soyuz-2 was set for 3:10 am the following day. All the Chief and Deputy Chief Designers confirmed that the launch vehicles, space ships, and support services would be completely ready to accomplish the launch on time. The Commission approved the crews, and gave the formal go-ahead for the flight.17
As was the custom for all Soviet crewed space missions, the members of the State Commission “re-enacted” the selection of crews for the mission later, at 5:00 pm, for the benefit of footage that could be shown on Moscow TV. This time, Kamanin (whose identity was public) gave a spirited speech asking the State Commission for “permission” to approve the final complement of the two crews.
On April 22, the Soyuz launch vehicle (known as 11A511, vehicle no. U15000-03) was already at the launch pad at Site 1. In the late morning, the prime and backup crews had their customary meeting with the launch command and industrial representatives. A number of Chief Designers met with the crews and informed them that after the Soyuz-1 launch there would only be two reasons for a postponement or cancellation of the Soyuz-2 launch, if there was a failure in the Igla rendezvous system; or, if there was a low charge in the solar panels on Soyuz-1. Kamanin counseled Komarov that the most important factor on the mission would be safety, and that in the case of any malfunctions, there would be no need to proceed with the complicated docking procedure. Later in the day, Komarov attended a press conference for journalists with special access. He dedicated his flight to the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.18
A final meeting of the State Commission, lasting 45 minutes, began at 9:00 pm, the night before launch, recommending a full go-ahead for the flight. That evening Komarov slept for about six hours, and was woken up at 11:30 pm (1:30 am local time, the following day). He had an initial medical examination, washed up, had breakfast, after which doctors attached medical sensors to his body. He was dressed in a plain light woolen gray suit and a blue jacket. He arrived by bus at the launch pad by 1:00 am and gave a short speech addressed to State Commission Chairman Kerimov before bidding all farewell. Mishin, Kamanin, and Gagarin accompanied him to the rocket; Gagarin then went all the way to the top of the rocket and remained there until the hatch was closed.19
For the launch phase, communications were carried out from a bunker with cosmonaut Andrian Nikolaev serving as the direct communicator (in NASA parlance this would be “capcom”.) Both Nikolaev and Gagarin remained in constant contact with Komarov throughout the pre-launch phase with no anomalies detected or reported. As planned, on April 23, 1967, at precisely 0335:00.1 hours Moscow Time, just before dawn at Baikonur, Soyuz-1 (or 7K-OK vehicle no. 4) lifted off from Tiura-Tam and headed to orbit.
Komarov’s first words after liftoff were, “Starting operation on the program. Engine work is stable.”20 During the ascent to orbit, Mishin himself got on the communications line a couple of times to directly talk to Komarov. TV images were beamed back showing the cosmonaut during the ascent. At T+527.58 seconds, the third stage of the 11A511 rocket stopped firing, effectively putting Soyuz-1 into orbit.21 The official Soviet news agency TASS released a brief statement, announcing orbital parameters, and some vague objectives of the flight. Characteristically there was no mention of the impending Soyuz-2 mission. Rumors in the West had, however, had reached crescendo proportions, some clearly indicating that a docking with a second ship was planned.22 Cosmonaut Pavel Popovich informed Komarov’s wife Valia that her husband was in orbit about 25 minutes after launch. She told reporters that “my husband never tells me when he goes on a business trip.”23
After launch, control over the mission switched from the makeshift control room at Baikonur to a location about 2,200 kilometers to the west, at Evpatoriia in Crimea on the coast of the Black Sea. Here, the Soviet space program operated the so-called Scientific Measurement Point No. 16 (NIP-16), a cluster of dishes and control centers to track various piloted and deep space missions. The main control room for Soyuz-1 was located on the second floor of a building next to an array of eight 16-meter dishes. The Soviet flight control team of about 20 men was officially known as the Main Operations and Control Group (GOGU) and was headed by Colonel Pavel Agadzhanov.
As soon as Komarov reached orbit, his transmissions switched to Evpatoriia. The cosmonaut unfastened his seatbelts and floated into the cabin, reporting that he could still see the last stage of the launch vehicle rotating away from him. Immediately, one of his first reports to the ground suggested a problem: “In the right porthole, I saw the solar panel open. I don’t see it in the left porthole.” A few minutes later, at 0353 hours, he confirmed again “The solar panel is visible in the right porthole. I don’t see the solar panel in the left porthole.”24
Soyuz-1, with a mass of 6,558 kilograms, was in an initial orbit of 209 x 224.1 kilometers at 51.67° inclination.25 But the initial incoming report from telemetry streams from two ground stations clearly confirmed what Komarov had repeatedly said: the Soyuz spacecraft’s left solar panel had not deployed upon entering orbit. As Agadzhanov’s team examined the data, they found other anomalies. A backup antenna in the telemetry system had failed to deploy and the exposed surface of “sun-star” sensor known as 45K had been contaminated, thus rendering it inoperable. While the antenna was a minor annoyance, the sensor malfunction was serious since without it, Soyuz-1 would be unable to properly orient itself, an absolute necessity to fire its main engine to change its orbit.26 And without the ability to change its orbit, the complex orbital mission planned with Soyuz-2 was effectively dead. Already on the second orbit, there were hints of other problems too. Komarov reported on the status of two sets of orientation engines, the DPO and DO, noting that while pressure of the main propellant in the former was at 240 (or nominal), pressure in the latter had dropped to 180.27
The new Soyuz spacecraft was equipped with several sets of engine systems. The DPO (approach and orientation engines) was designed for attitude control during approach and docking with other spacecraft, and used a set of four engines of 10 kilograms thrust. Second, there was the DO (orientation engine) system that used eight smaller ones of thrust ranging from 1 to 1.5 kilograms. Finally, there was the main Soyuz engine, known as the S5.35 or generically as the SKD (approach and correction engine). This was the main engine required to change orbits and to de-orbit Soyuz-1. But it could not be used unless the DPO and DO systems were operable and able to point the spacecraft in the right direction.
There was another growing worry: the single deployed solar array had to be positioned so it was exposed to sunlight. Through the second orbit, Komarov tried to manually orient the panel to the Sun but was unable to do so. At one point on the second orbit, he yelled at the ground “The current of the solar panel is zero.” When ground control didn’t hear him properly, he repeated, “Zero, zero! There’s nothing! A zero, a zero!”28
By the third orbit, it appeared that the ship was able to temporarily “spin to Sun,” Komarov reporting a current of 12–14 amperes. Meanwhile he attempted to release the undeployed telemetry antenna in the hope that it would dislodge the unopened solar panel, but all his efforts failed. His disposition remained fairly calm despite the array of increasing problems, reporting back periodically that “I feel excellent.” He found time to broadcast a short message that was shared by the Soviet media outlet, TASS, about his “ardent greetings to the peoples of our Motherland, paving the way to communism for mankind.”29
On the fourth orbit, communications between ground and Komarov were brief and touched mainly on data needed to make an attempt to fire his main engine for a few seconds on the subsequent (fifth) orbit and then try to see if Komarov could manually orient his ship given the state of various attitude control systems. The brief engine firing was mainly to verify whether it would still be possible to carry out the necessary orbital maneuvers for the rendezvous and docking with Soyuz-2 the following day. For the orientation test, Komarov would use ionic sensors together with the DPO.
When the time came, the main engine, the SKD, fired successfully for six seconds and shut down, imparting a delta-V of 3.1 meters/second. Two minutes later, at 0934:30 Moscow Time, Komarov started to use the DPO in manual mode using ionic sensors. He found that he could temporarily adjust attitude control to expose the solar panel to the sun (generating about 12–14 amps and 28 volts) but that the spacecraft would quickly spin out of alignment, thus losing all power from the only solar panel. This acquired current was far below the 23–25 amperes needed for nominal operation. The pressure in the DPO meanwhile had now dropped to 200, leaving less for reentry. 30
Something was clearly wrong with the ionic sensors; one journalist later noted, referring to the firing of the main engine, that the “correction was widely off the mark because the maneuvering thrusters’ exhaust affected the operation of the attitude control system’s ion sensors.”31 At this point thus, two of the three orientations—the 45K Sun-star sensor and the ionic sensor—were not possible to use to provide proper attitude control. It was a foregone conclusion that Soyuz-2 would have to be canceled, which is exactly the decision conveyed to Komarov. Mishin got on the comm line and told him this directly:
How did the grounded Soyuz-2 cosmonauts take it? Eliseev and Khrunov were apparently bitterly disappointed blaming the State Commission for “excessive caution and indecisiveness.”33 Officially, the TASS news service merely noted that “[a]ccording to [the] reports of Vladimir Komarov, the flight program is being successfully implemented, he is feeling well, his mood is cheerful.”34 TASS also replayed greetings from Komarov to the peoples of Vietnam and Australia.
The 17th orbit was a nominal recovery orbit for Soyuz-1, putting it back on track for landing in Soviet Central Asia. It would also give just enough time for the spacecraft to remain operational using its own internal buffer batteries instead of solar power. A reserve battery could then extend that to two more orbits. After talking to Mishin, Komarov soon moved to the larger “Living Compartment” (or “Orbital Module”) of the Soyuz to take a nap while the Soyuz spacecraft’s ground track moved out of communications range of Soviet ground and seaborne tracking stations, and radio-visibility via VHF communications, as it passed primarily over the Atlantic and the American continent.35
Back in contact on the 13th orbit, Komarov reported various spacecraft parameters to Zarya-15 on the ground. These included the critical pressure levels in the DO and DPO, which were 170 and 200 respectively. Sounding alert, he communicated in detail all the different possible ways of orienting the spacecraft, noting that “I’ve carried out experiments, tried to understand the orientation system. I [also] photographed the Earth’s surface from … the Descent Module.”36 The last TASS release on the flight before the landing came at this point, just at the end of the 13th orbit, which the agency noted that Komarov had completed at 2230 hours Moscow Time, some 70 minutes after coming back into radio-visibility with the ground. This was the most terse of all the releases, merely nothing that “work is being implemented in accordance with the program” and that Komarov was “feeling well.”37 Otherwise there were no details.
At this point, there were basically three major problems on board the Soyuz, each connected to the others. First, the left solar array had not deployed, thus robbing the spacecraft of key electrical power and limiting its orbital life. In addition, in the best-case scenario, the other array was only generating half the actual current needed. The “mechanical imbalance” of having only one solar array deployed disrupted the so-called “spinning mode” of the spacecraft. Komarov’s various attempts to manually “spin-to-Sun” only exhausted further propellant from the DO orientation system. These engines were crucial in maintaining stability during reentry. A second problem was the failure of the ionic system of orientation. The exhaust from the small jets of the DPO apparently interfered with the ionic tubes, thus essentially rendering them inoperable. Finally, there was the failure of the all-important 45K Sun-star sensor. There were apparently other problems too. Mishin later recalled that “because of the emergency, the shortage of power on board caused a chain of problems [including] a change in the temperature conditions.”38