Just by way of reminder, we've been talking about space program disasters. We started off in memoriam of the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia disasters, all of whose anniversaries fall within about a 2-week timespan on the calendar. Then we went on to begin talking about the space disasters of other countries, beginning with the Nedelin disaster in Soviet Russia in 1960. Let's keep talking about the USSR space program and its problems this week.
Again, we are excerpting from A New American Space Plan by Travis S. Taylor and myself, from Baen Books.
...The Soviets suffered another setback in 1961. In a tragedy eerily similar to the Apollo 1 fire, but six years earlier, Valentin Bondarenko died in a high-oxygen (but low-pressure) environment during a training session. Yuri Gagarin kept vigil at his hospital bedside, where he died a few hours after extrication.
Shortly thereafter, aboard Vostok 1, that same Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, completing a single full orbit of Earth. In the same year, the USSR launched Venera I to Venus, and put Gherman Titov into orbit for a full day aboard Vostok 2...In 1965, Voshkod 2 crewmen conducted the first extra-vehicular activity (EVA)—although not successfully. Their airlock was an inflatable, attached to the side of their craft, and it didn’t work quite as well as envisioned. The Voshkod was a redesign of the Vostok, and not a particularly good one. It was cramped, it contained two crewmen instead of one without expanding the volume at all, and it had no provision for emergency escape. As if that weren’t bad enough, after a little over twelve minutes of EVA, Alexei Leonov found that his spacesuit had ballooned out to a point where he had become inflexible. He simply did not have the strength to bend, even at the waist. When he attempted to reenter his vehicle, his suit became wedged and he couldn’t reach anything to free himself!
In the end he had to vent atmosphere from his suit, risking the bends, in order to get it small enough to re-enter his spacecraft and rejoin his crewman Pavel Belyayev. Then the hatch wouldn’t close
properly. Once they got that fixed, the spacecraft was so cramped that, after orienting for deorbit burn, it took them an additional forty-six seconds to navigate their inflated spacesuits back into their seats. This threw off the center of gravity during the initial stages of reentry. The automatic landing system failed, and they had to resort to manual backup— and the orbital module didn’t disconnect when it should have! They spun crazily until the module finally jettisoned at an altitude of only 62 miles (100 km).
The whole mess caused them to miss their designated landing area by a good 240 miles (386 km) in the middle of the Ural Mountains of Siberia. The location was cold, it was snow-covered, it was filled with bears and wolves—and it was the animals’ mating season, the time when said bears and wolves were in their foulest moods. The Soviet control center had no idea where they were—and the hatch’s pyro bolts had blown it off. As was common in the early days of the space program for both Soviet and American, there was a pistol and ammunition aboard, and the men were trained for that terrain, but they had little in the way of shelter save the open Voskhod capsule. Aircraft located them, but it was too heavily forested for helicopters, so the men settled down for the night in their spacesuits— after stripping and wringing perspiration out of their soaked underwear. After a frigid -22°F (-30°C) night, a rescue party on skis arrived the next morning.
Not exactly a successful mission.
The N-1 rocket, the Soviet counterpart to the Saturn V, began development in 1965. Unfortunately its principal architect, Sergei Korolev, by this time known only by the enigmatic title “Chief Designer,” as his very existence was a state secret, died abruptly in 1966 of medical reasons which are still debated. Cancer was certainly a factor, as was his known heart condition, but a botched operation, coupled with the inability to intubate him due to jaw damage from beatings dating from his days in the gulag, may well have contributed. This left the N-1 program leaderless. It floundered badly, and after four failed launch attempts, the program was suspended, then cancelled in 1976.
More Russian problems next week.